Tag Archives: Faith L. Justice

The Reluctant Groom

 By Faith L. Justice

Johan Michael Lutz sat in a hickory chair, crushing the brim of his felt hat. The seven elders of the Lehigh Lutheran Church of the Province of Pennsylvania sat behind a pine table, beards bristling. He lowered his eyes. “I’m f-forty.  T-t-too old to ch-change my ways.”

Heinrich Diebolt, the oldest of the elders, snorted. “Brother Lutz, God and Queen Anne gave us this land to tame and cultivate. It will be a Christian land, but not without some effort on our part. The Scriptures say, ‘go forth and multiply.’ You have yet to do your Christian duty.”

Johan’s face flushed. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, garbling his angry words. “I tr-tr-tr-.” He stopped and took a deep breath. “I tr-tried. N-N-No wo-woman would have me.” In his youth, his short stature and stammer marked him as an object of ridicule among young women and he had avoided their company ever since.

“Brother Lutz, the matter is now out of your hands.” Elder Diebolt pushed a letter toward Johan. “Your bride is coming on Saturday next. Her name is Margueritha Inglard. If she approves, the marriage will take place within a month.”

Johan stood, bowed to the elders and exited the clapboard church onto the muddy village street. How dare the elders subject him to such humiliation and possible rejection!  His temples throbbed. He jammed the hat onto his head, the letter into his pocket, and strode down the street toward his cabin; ignoring the curious glances of passersby.

* * * * *

Sunday morning, Johan grunted as he lowered himself into the wooden tub. After church services, he would meet his prospective bride. He sat, knees under chin, and soaked until the water began to cool. He considered not showing up, but the week had given him time to consider the elder’s proposition. In spite of his misgivings, he had to meet the woman, had to see for himself if there was any hope. If the worst happened, he could resume his life without the interference of the elders. Surely, they would leave him alone if the woman rejected him. If she didn’t, he had a glimmer of hope, a possibility of happiness.

He toweled dry and dressed with care, tying an intricate knot in his cravat and tucking a handkerchief up his sleeve. He tied his flyaway brown locks into a neat tail at the nape of his neck with a black ribbon, donned his hat and left; hope and fear alternately spurring and slowing his steps.

Johan heard the first notes of a hymn as he approached the door. He strained to catch a glimpse of his possible bride over the backs of bonnets and hats, but could see nothing. He suffered through the long sermon and belted out the hymns. He never stammered when singing and often wondered at the fact.

Finally, Elder Diebolt read out the community news. A baby boy born to the Herbers. The Muellers had chickens for sale or trade. A militia was forming in response to the Lenape’s threats to recover the land stolen by the so-called “Walking Purchase.” This caused concerned whispering among the congregation.

Johan heard the mutterings, but was more concerned with the impending meeting. He rubbed sweating palms on his breeches, as Elder Diebolt rumbled to a close. A final prayer and the congregation rose to leave. Johan waited outside, shifting from foot to foot. People filed out, Elder Diebolt among the last, followed by his wife and a woman dressed in gray broadcloth, white bonnet and knitted shawl.

Diebolt spotted Johan fidgeting by the steps and frowned. “Brother Lutz, you were late.”

Blood rushed to Johan’s face. “P-Pardon, Elder Diebolt.”

“I hope it won’t become a habit.”

“N-No sir.”

The two women approached and lingered on the bottom step. Diebolt bowed. “Mistress Inglard, may I present Master Lutz?”

Johan held his breath as she turned her face his way. His heart thudded painfully. She was much younger than he thought she would be. He had expected a spinster or widow closer to his own age, weathered, with a bitter mouth; a woman who could do no better than a stammering aging bachelor. Marguritha looked to be in her mid-twenties, with a fresh complexion and dark hair tucked primly under her bonnet. A long nose and narrow jaw gave her a slightly horsey look, but her eyes arrested him. Large, light brown with gold flecks, set wide apart and sparkling with humor. Her generous mouth pursed in a shy smile as she offered her hand to Johan. It was small with long tapering fingers; the pads calloused from many needle pricks, like a seamstress.

“Good Sabbath to you, Master Lutz.”

“G-G-G…” He bowed over her hand and took a deep breath. “G-Good Sabbath to you, Mistress Inglard.”

She stepped off the stair and, to his delight, only topped him by a few inches.

“You are joining us for Sunday dinner, are you not, Master Lutz?” Mistress Diebolt asked.

“Y-Yes, Mistress.” Johan gave a slight bow in her direction, then put a firm hand under Marguritha’s elbow to guide her down the street toward the Diebolt house.

The whitewashed clapboard home, surrounded by a low wooden fence, dominated the smaller homes on the street. They entered, through a red door, into a central hall with a staircase leading to the second floor. The wide pine boards had been recently scrubbed and waxed to a high shine. Johan frowned, thinking of his own much less impressive home.

Elder Diebolt led them into a parlor with oak furniture and white-washed walls. A side table boasted a silver tea set and delicate blue and white china cups and saucers shipped from England. A rather crude portrait of the Elder and his wife sat over the empty fireplace.

Mistress Diebolt lingered in the doorway. “I’ll see to dinner. It should be ready soon.”

Johan saw Marguritha to a cushioned chair and took a plain one on the other side of a small table where he could observe her, but be out of her direct line of sight. Diebolt settled his large frame on a padded settee and turned his frowning gaze on Johan. Johan felt his throat tightening.

Marguritha’s soft voice broke the silence. “Master Diebolt, what is this ‘Walking Purchase’ you spoke of at the end of the sermon today? It seemed the cause of some consternation among the fellowship.”

Johan stifled a sigh of relief at not having to talk.

Diebolt leaned back and clasped his hands over his stomach. “It’s a sad affair. William Penn, a good and fair man, treated the Lenape well. He established Pennsylvania as a haven of tolerance. But his sons and agents are another story.” He snorted. “Weak, greedy, immoral men!”

“Penn’s sons dug up an unsigned paper from over fifty years ago that claimed the Lenape granted them land on the Lehigh River, west as far as a man could walk in a day and a half. Last September, their agent prepared a trail and hired the fastest men in the province to run it. One covered seventy miles, which granted the Penns over a million acres of Lenape land. My youngest son bought land and moved his family onto it before we knew it was a swindle. The Lenape are threatening reprisals.”

Johan frowned. Natives troubled other provinces, but not Pennsylvania. He had more fear of white savages than red when he traveled.

Marguritha put a hand on the old man’s knee. “Are your son and family in danger?”

“The assembly—damn rascals all of them!—has found in favor of the Penns. But the Lenape are appealing to their Iroquois overlords for redress. If the tribes come to the Lenape’s defense, we could have war.”

A young girl in a servant’s apron came to the door. “Mistress invites you to the dinner table.”

On the way to the dining room, Diebolt leaned down to Johan and whispered, “Talk to the girl!”

The dining room was as well appointed as the parlor, with a mahogany table, carved chairs and a massive sideboard laden with food: a tureen of oyster stew, a ham, roasted potatoes and parsnips sprinkled with butter and dried parsley, corn bread, stewed pears, a large bowl of wild greens dressed with vinegar and a cherry pie crusted with precious sugar.

Johan’s mouth watered at the mélange of enticing smells. It was early spring and the Diebolts did well to put on such a feast when stores were scarce. “Wh-Where did you get the gr-greens?”

Mistress Diebolt surveyed her largesse and smiled. “Mistress Inglard gathered them in the wild.”

Johan smiled. His mother had been a village herb woman and he had fond memories of gathering plants in the woods at her side.

“She also made the cherry pie and sewed her own gown.”

Johan recognized Mistress Diebolt’s unsubtle attempt to assure him of Marguritha’s domestic skills. But what had she said to Miss Inglard about his suitability as a husband?

The older woman indicated a chair to the left of her husband’s. “Sit here, Master Lutz. Mistress Inglard, you may have the next seat.”

“Let us join hands and thank the Lord for this bounty.” Diebolt led them in prayer, then the servant girl served the oyster stew and filled their glasses with apple cider. Johan ate his fill in spite of his nervousness.

“Mistress Inglard, I understand you were born in this country?” Mistress Diebolt broke a lengthy silence.

“My parents were settled in the Mohawk valley with others to manufacture pitch for the English navy, but the pines were the wrong kind and the settlers didn’t have good shelters or enough supplies. If it hadn’t been for the natives they would have perished. I was born shortly after they abandoned the settlements and moved to New York.”

“That was a shameful scheme.” Elder Deibolt shook his head. “I give thanks every day I followed Penn rather than one of the other agents.”

“Master Lutz,” Marguritha tuned to him. “Were you born here?”

Three pairs of eyes turned to Johan. “N-n-no.” He ducked his head.

Elder Diebolt frowned. Mistress Diebolt sighed. Mistress Inglard looked down at her plate.

Johan’s face grew warm. She must think me a lack-wit!

“Master Lutz’s family is from the Neckar valley, as is mine.” Elder Diebolt broke in. “Where in Germany did your parents hail from?”

“The Main River. Father often told me of the winter of 1708 when it was so cold, the river froze solid and wood didn’t burn in the open.”

“Aye, it was a bad one. After the French ruined our farms, we nearly starved. Thank the Good Lord for Queen Anne and William Penn.”

The food lost its flavor as Johan recalled the wretched families living in tent camps outside London while the English government cooked up one scheme after another to rid themselves of the Germans.

“Were your parents farmers, Mistress Inglard?” Mistress Diebolt asked.

“No. My father was a printer and Mother a seamstress. She died shortly after my birth and Father recently of a wasting disease.”

Mistress Diebolt reached over to pat Marguritha’s hand. “We’ve all given so much for the promise of this new land. I’ve buried three children here.” Tears glistened in her eyes. “Master Lutz is an orphan, as well.”

Johan nodded. The loneliness, he normally held in check, settled like a stone in the pit of his stomach. He gave a shy glance toward Marguritha. Could he hope?

“What dark talk for such a happy occasion!” Elder Diebolt turned to Johan. “Master Lutz, tell Mistress Inglard of your farm and your business.”

Johan froze, a forkful of greens halfway to his lips. Damn the man! He couldn’t give a one-word answer or duck his head to that question.

“I-I-I-I…” He took a swallow of cider. “It’s j-j-j-j…” He unclenched his jaw. “I-I-I-I…”

He wasn’t able to unstick his tongue. He took a quick glance around the table. Disappointment and concern marked the Deibolts’ faces. But what flitted across Marguritha’s, before she masked it? Revulsion? Pity?

He stood, gave a brief bow and walked quickly out the back door hoping they would think he needed to use the privy. He ran through the kitchen garden to the top of a low rise and sat on a rail bench; his back to the house. Angry tears stung his eyes. Why had the elders interfered with his life? He had been content until they held out the hope of family, companionship…love. How deluded to think a woman could love him when he couldn’t even talk to her!

After a few moments, he stifled a sigh. Fool. He must bury his hopes, but gather his dignity. He must go back and apologize.

“Master Lutz, have I disappointed you in some way?”

Johan started and turned his head. Marguritha stood in bonnet and shawl, her face shadowed.

“N-no!”

“May I sit?”

“Of c-c-course.”

They sat looking over the quiet village. Most folks were inside with their dinners, but soon would be out to do evening chores.

“I was told you were a man of few words, yet you’ve barely spoken to or even looked at me. When you left so suddenly, I feared you disapproved.”

“N-no, it’s not that.”

“Then what is it?” She clasped her hands in her lap and lowered her head. “I know I am not pretty, but I work hard and can be of help to you. I kept me and my father alive during his illness by taking in sewing and bartering our kitchen vegetables.”

Johan stiffened. He had never thought Marguritha would feel rejected by him.

“I th-thought you found me lacking. M-most women like t-taller men and I st-st-st…” He took a breath. “I stammer.”

She turned to him. “One of the advantages of maturity is the loss of romantic notions, Master Lutz. I’ve seen many a young woman come to grief marrying a handsome man who then strayed to other beds; or a quick talking man who took his pleasure and left the girl with the child. I value what a man does and how he lives above how he looks or what he says.”

“Or how he s-says it?”

“Elder Diebolt and the others recommended you highly to me as a kind, honest, hard-working man.”

“Th-they did?”

“I have the letter here.” She reached into a slit in her skirt to retrieve a paper from the pocket tied around her waist and handed it to Johan.

It was addressed to a Lutheran congregation in New York. He unfolded the missive and read a section:

Johan Michael Lutz is forty-years of age and a member in good standing of the community. He owns productive land with a house and operates a carting business for cash and trade. He is in good health, sound of limb, but short in stature. He is of a shy nature, but good with animals, helpful to his neighbors, and attends church regularly.

He folded the letter and handed it back. “N-Not the most f-flattering of portraits.”

“But practical. I’m sure the letter describing me was in the same vein.”

He nodded and blushed.

“I would not force myself on anyone. We are free people and have a choice. If you do not care for my countenance or character, I will travel on to Philadelphia where I can provide for myself with my sewing skills.” She looked across the valley. “But I would like to marry and have children. I have no other family in this land. I understand the same is true of you. No brothers or sisters?”

“I had a sister. She died on the passage over.” He shuddered at the memory of the small canvas-wrapped bundle being dumped into the sea. “Mother, a healer, died of fever in the London camp. She used all her medicine on others and had none for herself.”

“I never knew my mother. All I have is this.” She opened a locket hanging on a ribbon around her neck. The miniatures inside showed a young woman with curling brown hair and a man with a long nose and narrow jaw.

“She’s very pretty.”

“I favor my father.” Marguritha clicked the locket shut. “And your father?”

“He and I settled here when I was twelve, but he died of a fever shortly after I turned eighteen. I’ve been on my own ever since.”

“Managing the farm and building your business? That’s quite an accomplishment for a young man alone with no family.”

He shrugged. “I did what was needed.”

“Did you not want a wife and children?”

“Yes, but the years slipped by and…it was just easier to be alone.”

She turned to him. “You didn’t stammer once while talking of your family.”

“I didn’t?”

Johan’s hand crept closer to Marguritha’s. She seemed a kind and decent woman, not at all disturbed by his lack of height or repulsed by his stammer. He enclosed her hand in his, running his thumb over the sewing calluses. Her life had been hard and lonely, as well.

She smiled at him and a light kindled in his breast. He had lived with loneliness for over twenty years and hadn’t realized how it leached joy from his life. He smiled back.

“Mistress Inglard, will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”

She lowered her eyes and answered softly, “I will, Master Lutz.”

He raised her hand to his lips for a soft kiss. Her hand trembled. She blushed and turned her glance away. His heart beat a fast tattoo.

After a moment, she nodded toward the house. “The evening is cooling. Perhaps we should repair to the good Diebolt’s abode and tell them the news. Mistress Diebolt has been peeking from her window for quite some time.”

They stood and he squeezed her hand.

“Thank you, Mistress Inglard.”

“You’re welcome, Master Lutz.”

_______________________________________________________________

Faith L. Justice lives and writes historical novels in Brooklyn, NY. Check out her website at www.faithljustice.com to read her award winning short fiction, articles, reviews, interviews with other authors and sample chapters of her debut novel Selene of Alexandria. Her most recent effort is a nonfiction e-book, Hypatia: Her Life and Times, a collection of articles about the famous 5C Lady Philosopher of Alexandria. For fun, Faith likes to dig in the dirt–her garden and various archaeological sites.

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Anita Diamant

By Faith L. Justice

Faith L. Justice: How did you get started writing?

Anita Diamant: I wrote poetry a long time ago, but you can’t make any money in poetry. I switched to journalism and non-fiction. When I turned 40, I wanted to do something different. Fiction offered a different challenge. It uses a different side of the brain.

F.L.J.: How would you describe your story in The Red Tent?

A.D.: It’s a historical novel set about 1500 BCE with a plot plundered from the Bible and told from the perspective of a woman and her culture. Jacob’s daughter Dinah is a great story. It has sex, violence, plot, drama, suspense, and an unexpected bloody denouement. Dinah’s silence in the Bible is a big opening.

F.L.J.: A few people criticized your feminist version of the story and subsequent characterizations of the patriarchs.

A.D.: This is what happens when you appropriate the Bible – you’re treading on sacred territory. It’s very understandable that people get upset and proprietary about their vision of the sacred and what you should or shouldn’t be able to do with it. With a female first person narrator you see the women’s world. Dinah wouldn’t have known what the men’s world was like. Until very recently men and women inhabited very separate spheres. There was always interconnection, passion, love, and interdependence economically and many other ways. But I think we lived in very different worlds especially where you have traditional extended families. Men and women didn’t hang out at the end of the day and chat about what their day was like at the office. They had very special responsibilities and social sense. Women wouldn’t know a whole lot about the daily details of the men in their lives. They loved them, they were important to them, but they didn’t spend the lion’s share of their hours with one another.

F.L.J.: You’ve sold over 200,000 copies. What’s been the appeal?

A.D.: The story works in different ways for different people. Readers have told me how the mother, daughter, sister relationships resonate for them. They connect with the importance of female relationships. And then there’s the Bible. It’s sort of the other person in the room. There’s this book, the reader, and the Bible. Whatever your relationship is to your sacred tradition in the West you have some relationship to the Bible if only through the names of the characters. We all know a Jake or Becky or we’ve named our children Rachael or Isaac. Biblical names are hot again. These people function in our lives whether or not we’re Bible readers, church or synagogue goers. These stories belong to us from childhood. For some people it’s a way to reconnect personally with the tradition they felt alienated from, there’s some power released. I don’t take credit for it. That’s something way deeper than I intended. I didn’t count on that when I was writing the story.

F.L.J.: How did you go about researching it?

A.D.: As a journalist I’m comfortable doing library research and I did a lot. I had a fellowship at Radcliff for a year which gave me access to the Harvard system. This allowed me to poke around in the divinity school library, the Schlesinger Library and Wagoner Library for facts about daily life – food, clothing, remedies for disease, and what houses in Egypt might have looked like. In particular I researched female medicine – midwifery, birth control, and abortion. I didn’t do Biblical research. The sheer weight of the research nearly overwhelmed me. I had to stop myself a lot and tell myself that I didn’t need to become an expert on this. I just needed the details that served my plot.

F.L.J.: How did you organize it?

A.D.: I didn’t outline. When I started the book, I knew that it would begin with Dinah’s birth or pre-birth, there would be this dramatic climax, and end with her death. That was really all I knew. Getting the fellowship sort of legitimized the process. It made me feel like I really had to write this book. I was also working on other books and articles at the same time. I didn’t have an advance, this was my hobby. I really enjoyed it, even though it was difficult and challenging, because it was really different.

F.L.J.: I read you had trouble getting an agent and getting it published.

A.D.: I initially sent it to agents whom I thought would get it. They didn’t. Then I sent it to some I know. One took it on, but he had to back away because of other commitments. I ended up with a local agent. She found a publisher on the first mailing. She sent the manuscript to five houses and heard back from St. Martins. It was a modest first novel advance. But that wasn’t the end of my difficulties. I lived through a classic publishing story. My editor at St. Martins was fired a month before the book came out. It became an orphan book. The editor who took it over liked the book, but she already had a full plate. It was never advertised and didn’t get reviewed in any major outlets. The hardback had modest sales of a little over 10,000 copies

F.L.J.: The paperback sold over 200,000 copies. What drove those sales?

A.D.: I’ve spent nearly three years promoting the book. When Picador USA decided to bring it out as a trade paperback, St. Martin’s announced it would remainder the hardbacks. I said, ‘Please don’t do that. Let’s use them [the hardbacks] for promotion. Why not send them out to clergy?’ I got the lists for them and the publisher paid the postage, provided the books, and mailed them out. We initially sent the books to the female rabbis in Reform Judaism – about 500 women. The President of the organization was a friend of mine and wrote a cover letter recommending the book. Another friend who was the president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinic Assembly provided a cover letter and we sent copies to all of the Reconstructionist rabbis – both men and women. People preached from it and recommended it to their congregants.

I have a10-year track record of writing for the Jewish community and it embraced this book in a big way. The President of the Reform Movement started a literacy project and said everyone should be reading at least four Jewish books a year. The Reform Judaism Magazine, which goes out to about 400,000 households, named The Red Tent as a significant Jewish book. They featured it with a picture of the cover and an interview with me. That’s a recommendation with a lot of impact. November is Jewish book month, so Jewish Community Centers all around the country have book fairs where they invite authors and sell books in advance of the holidays. I had done that with my other books. I only had a little interest in The Red Tent the second year it was out, but the next year, I had to turn down invitations to speak all over the country.

F.L.J.: So you started with Jewish community – did you expand beyond that base?

A.D.: Picador mailed copies of The Red Tent to female Christian clergy and independent reading group leaders. Reading groups have been real fans ofThe Red Tent. The publisher offered discounts and promotional materials if bookstores bought in quantities of ten or more, making it more appealing as a book group reading selection. They created and printed a reading group guide and made it available through their website. The icing on the cake came when Mickey Perlman, who publishes What to Read: The Essential Guide for Reading Group Members and Other Book Lovers recommended The Red Tentas one of her favorites.

The sales numbers speak of a much broader audience. This is a real word-of-mouth book. If ten women read it, they tell their friends, and those friends recommend it to their friends. The more I do bookstores, the more people come up to me from church groups. I spoke at Pittsburg State College and had 2 or 3 ministers and book groups from a couple of churches.

The independent book sellers have been great. The Red Tent was on theBook Sense bestseller list for months. You don’t realize how much of a difference it makes. The independents just do things differently. Clearly they know their readers and they know what they like and they support those books. It’s just a very different relationship. They have a lot more flexibility in what they can order and what they can display and it makes a difference to people like me. The independents hand-sell. When their customers come in and ask, “What should I read?” they say, “You’re going to like this book.” My local independent bookseller has been incredibly supportive and has sold a ton of my books. Locally, it’s been his best seller for many years. I’ll go to events and sign fifty books. I’d do anything he asks.

The publisher sold the rights to foreign sales. Now The Red Tent is translated into 10 different languages, and sold in 11 countries. The covers are really different but it’s doing very well. It’s just amazing to me. It’s wonderful. I was invited to Holland by the Dutch publisher and did a book tour in Amsterdam which was – WOW.

F.L.J.: You’ve said there is an element of luck in getting published.

A.D.: I’m not a literary writer. I didn’t go to whatever school it is or have the mentor you need to get reviewed in the New York Times. Publishing is a weird business. There are good books that don’t get published and crappy books that get published and promoted up the wazoo. It seems pretty serendipitous and arbitrary to me. I had luck in that I found an agent, a publisher liked the book and published it beautifully. Picador picked it up, and, in spite of modest sales, St. Martins didn’t remainder it right away. The fact that The Red Tent did well has something to do with spiritual seeking, that it’s an intensely woman’s story and had a base in a very literate community that buys books.

F.L.J.: What’s next?

A.D.: A contemporary novel. I’m really looking forward to writing all summer.


Faith L. Justice’s pre-writing life included work as a lifeguard, paralegal, college professor, and business consultant.  She lives with her husband, daughter, and cat in New York City.  Faith’s nonfiction has been published in In These Times, Salon.com, Writer’s Digest and The Writer, among others.  Visit her website.

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Valerie Anand

By Faith L. Justice

Popular historical fiction and mystery writer Valerie Anand brings past times and conundrums to life with fascinating characters, abundant detail and meticulous research. She’s the author of the six-book series Bridges Over Time covering the evolution of one family from before the Conquest to modern times, as well as many others. More recently she’s been known under her pen name Fiona Buckley for her historical mystery series set in the early years of Elizabeth I’s reign. Ms. Anand talked to us about her writing, love of history, feminist leanings, and research methods from her South London home.

Faith L. Justice: Do you have a literary family history ?

Valerie Anand: My father was a good teller of stories to small children and so was his aunt, my great aunt Clara. They both made up tales to amuse me. On the same side of the family, I had a cousin (now dead) who although a scientist, was also keen on books and wrote a couple of science fiction paperback novels.

For me, writing is a natural function, like breathing. No one can do without breathing and I can’t do without writing. I don’t know why. It satisfies a very deep need. At the age of six, just after I had really learned to write, I suddenly announced that I was going to write books when I grew up and I actually started trying, then and there, on a piece of doubled over paper with a red crayon. The best moments come when I am trying to transmit something subtle or very deeply emotional and difficult to express, and feel, after much writing and re-writing that yes, that’s it, I’ve got it right at last, that’s it.

F.L.J.: What drew you to historical fiction?

V.A.: You may be surprised to learn that America—well, Hollywood—had a lot to do with my decision to write historicals. I didn’t like history at school, mainly because it wasn’t well taught. At school, they gave the impression that everyone in history was not only dead but mummified and covered in cobwebs as well. But at the age of fifteen, I went with another girl to see MGM’s film of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe –starring Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Taylor. And suddenly, there were all these medieval people who weren’t in the least mummified or cobwebby. They wore colorful clothes; they fought and feasted, fell in love, kidnapped each other, besieged castles…I walked into that cinema knowing that one day I wanted to write novels and walked out of it knowing exactly what kind of novel I wanted to write. Historical novels set in the middle ages. From then on, I couldn’t read enough medieval history. I didn’t tell my teachers, though. They would have wanted me to pass exams and spoiled all the fun.

F.L.J.: Did you read historicals after Ivanhoe or go straight to the “real” history?

V.A.: I read Ivanhoe then spent nearly every minute of my spare time sitting on the floor of the history section reading my way along the history shelves—the medieval bit. I took some of the books out and kept the whole thing a dead secret from my history teacher. I sank right to the bottom of the class. I didn’t want the teacher to know. It was too exciting and too private. In my talks I always say, “If there are any teachers among you, I’m going to preach sedition. It’s a mistake to hitch all learning to the examination wagon. There are such things as private voyages of the mind.” This was one of them.

F.L.J.: Why did you cross over to historical mysteries?

V.A.: It took a long time to get into print, but I just kept trying—for about 20 years, come to think of it—until I finally succeeded. Historicals, however, have a checkered track record. They keep going out of fashion. Sometimes they slip back in for a while but it doesn’t last.

Historical mysteries, though, seem to have got a grip, especially since Ellis Peters launched that marvelous Cadfael series. I noticed that one of my books,Crown of Roses, which is about the mystery of the princes in the Tower, did better than any other, and concluded that the mystery element might be part of the reason (the other part is that the mystery itself is so famous).

Well, I love reading whodunits anyway, so I decided to try this new field. I’m enjoying it.

F.L.J.: How do you research your books?

V.A.: I regularly do a talk on writing and research and the research bit takes about twenty minutes! To put it briefly: I have, of course, been reading history for interest and pleasure for years and years and have a reasonably sound general background on the parts which interest me most. When planning a specific book, I read works on the period and take notes, and then chase up such details as the layout of particular towns, styles of furniture, fashions of the time, laws in force, technologies which existed then, etc. by reading books on those subjects. I often visit a museum such as the British Museum, to look at artifacts; I sometimes visit places that I want to feature so as to get them right. And I use maps a lot!

My current Ursula Blanchard book is set on the Welsh-English border, partly in a haunted castle. While researching this, I at one point had my sitting room floor completely carpeted with Landranger maps while I tried to work out whether one could or could not ride a horse from one point to another in a single day. Having concluded that it wasn’t possible, I decided to move my haunted castle 17 miles westward. Come to think of it, one of the satisfying things about being an author is the sheer power one has over one’s characters and settings!

I also sometimes interview people and have been known to write to historians to ask specific questions. What usually happens, in the middle of reading up on the period, chasing the facts I need and spreading the maps all over the place, then the urge to get started becomes too strong. Then I get about half-way through and I say “oh, I’ve got to find out about that” and I find out about it and it changes the plot, so I have to go back and all but start again. I just can’t seem to keep this from happening. It doesn’t seem to matter in the end. It just seems the urge to write overtakes the information available.

I always try to be accurate, because there is always someone out there who will write in and point out your mistakes.

F.L.J.: Why did you adopt a nom de plume for the historical mysteries?

V.A.: I didn’t actually want to change my name but Orion, the British publisher who launched the Ursula Blanchard series, wanted me to have a new identity for my new venture, and they insisted. I certainly don’t wish to keep my real name secret! I may write things under the name of Valerie Anand in the future, just as I did in the past, and would hate to lose out on readers who know me as Fiona Buckley and don’t realize that Valerie Anand is the same person! Or vice versa.

F.L.J.: Have you been able to make a living as a fiction writer?

V.A.: A lot of people said you’ll never earn a living as a writer, but I’m laughing last. It was hard in the beginning. I worked a 4-day week at the office and wrote the whole day on the 5th. It was physically very demanding. In 1989 I became redundant just as I received the contract to write the six-book seriesBridges Over Time. I said, “Right, take the golden handshake, buy a word processor, convert the garage, and trust to luck.” I’m very pleased to say I’ve earned a living off my writing for quite a long time.

F.L.J.: Who are your favorite authors?

V.A.: My favorite book of all time is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I belong to the Tolkien Society. Among my other favorite modern authors are Susan Howatch, Dick Francis, Robert Goddard, Terry Pratchett, Arthur C. Clarke, Joanna Trollope, and, of course, Lindsey Davis.

Of classical authors, my favorites are Jane Austen and the Brontes, and in between, as it were, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, John Wyndham. All these have produced books which can be re-read and re-read.

F.L.J.: Have they influenced your own writing?

V.A.: I suppose they have in some ways. I think one does one learn—without without knowing you’re learning—a lot from reading well-written books. You learn how to construct passages, how to create an atmosphere. You don’t know your doing it. You couldn’t describe how its done, but have absorbed a good deal. With Tolkien—which which I’m rereading at the moment—I had to go through my current manuscript and remove all the references to clear water and merry meetings. He’s got such a vocabulary that is finds its way into your own work if you’re not careful. It catches like measles. And another fantastic writer, that’s almost forgotten nowadays, is T.H. White. The language in The Sword in the Stone is catching too.

F.L.J.: How would you characterize the Ursula Blanchard series?

V.A.:. It’s essentially a mixture of mystery and Elizabethan espionage and it is more concerned with detection and mystery-solving than with violent adventure. This is one of the reasons why the main character is a young woman. I decided on that partly because most (though not all) lead characters in this type of novel are male and I wanted to be different. But I also felt that merely because Ursula is a woman, she can’t get out of difficult situations just by knocking her opponents down or felling them with broadswords. She has to use brain instead of brawn, and this is my favorite kind of thriller. I have a weakness for Agatha Christie and this is partly because Hercule Poirot depends on his little gray cells and not on violence, while Miss Marple is even less capable of violence than Poirot and most certainly has to work by thinking. You may be getting the feeling that I don’t like violence. That’s true. I don’t. Of course I accept that to fight in self-defense is legitimate (you can’t have people like Hitler just trampling all over everyone in sight and do nothing about it). But it is intelligence, not muscle, that makes human beings different from the animals.

In Ursula, I have tried to create an intelligent, normally feminine woman who is involved in espionage. She is often handicapped by being female, especially since she lives in the days of Elizabeth I, not Elizabeth II. She has to find ways round that. Her manservant Roger Brockley is there to do the bits which have to involve muscle. I have also tried to keep the tone entertaining. I want people to enjoy my books, to be amused as well as interested. I wish the books to be fun as well as accurate and—I hope—properly properly plotted and tense.

F.L.J.: Why did you choose the Elizabethan era?

V.A.: As far as I could see, most other historical whodunit series were medieval or ancient Egyptian. Elizabeth’s era hadn’t been much used. But it was a splendid era for espionage—there was so much going on and the people involved seemed to get such an extraordinary kick out of it. It was an interesting time, too, in other ways. It was the outcome of the Renaissance. New ideas were burgeoning; art, poetry, drama and music were developing fast throughout the whole Tudor era. It produced Shakespeare and Hans Holbein. Seamen were opening up new trade routes to Russia and beginning to explore America; technology and science were developing. And there was a woman on the throne, which somehow seemed to make Ursula and her unusual calling more believable. The possibilities seemed immense.

F.L.J.: How do Ursula and your other women characters reflect your views on women’s roles in history?

V.A.: Throughout history women have been largely undervalued, but their contribution was undoubtedly there. They don’t get recorded, when they must have had enormous influence behind the scenes. We’re half the human race after all. There must have been an awful lot of women who’s names haven’t echoed down the ages the same way as if they had been men. I think that in creating Ursula, and some of my other heroines, I have been trying to demonstrate what that contribution could be and also how women made it. So often, they had to dissemble so that although they were wielding influence, they weren’t seen to be wielding it.

F.L.J.: You seem to have a strong feminist streak. I believe you call it “feminism of the mind.”

V.A.: That sensibility began in the 1950’s when I was young. 1960’s feminism seemed to be about women being free to go around and have one-night stands and all the rest of it. I never wanted to do that. But I did want was to think for myself and not be confronted with this dreadful business of you must do what men tell you because they are men. Women must not surrender their intellectual integrity. We have exactly the same right to live our lives by the light of our intelligence, to be free to learn all we can, to study if we want to, to develop an intellectual life and not to be told we shouldn’t do this by anybody.

I find that marriage clause “to obey” appalling. A woman should be free to use her intelligence to get out of an abusive relationship or earn a living if necessary. It’s important to develop intellectual resources. If you have intellectual interests and mental resources you’re not so stricken when the beauty goes and you get older. It won’t matter so much then, you’ll have something else to do.

F.L.J.: How has that applied in your own life?

V.A.: Mother believed the life of the mind was only for men and wanted me to be very domesticated. But as a young woman, fired by my father’s accounts of going up in planes during the war, I learned to fly light aircraft. I didn’t go on with it after I’d got my private pilot’s license. It was too expensive! I just wanted to have done it and I did enjoy it. I did my training at Biggin Hill, the famous fighter station.

I took my time getting married. In the fifties, over here, marriage was very repressive. One really was expected to knuckle under and ‘obey’. I had no intention of doing anything of the kind. Also, my background, though very loving was in some ways very narrow. I wanted wider horizons and wasn’t sure how to get them. Then, at the age of 31, after my father had died, I went dancing with some other girls, met Dalip Singh Anand, from northern India and that seemed to be it. The spark leapt the gap of race and culture instantly, and I have never regretted it. We married on 26th March 1970. It widened my horizons most satisfactorily. I now have a whole family in Delhi and Chandigarh and they have made me most welcome.

We have never had children but it hasn’t worried us.

F.L.J.: Has that widened horizon influenced your writing?

V.A.: I’ve written a couple of books about India. One was a little romance _To a Native Shore_. The heroine married an Indian, moved there, and was quite homesick. She had to come back to England for some reason and hesitated about returning to her husband, but it takes time and various things happen. In the end she realizes that although she will never break the links with home, she does want to go back to him. The other one, _West of Sunset_, was a much darker book because it took place in Delhi after the awful riots in 1984 after Mrs. Ghandi was assassinated. It’s about the fortunes of Indian immigrants in England. That incident changed lives and attitudes here.

F.L.J.: A reviewer has described your characters as amusingly modern. Do you agree?

V.A.: Yes, up to a point. I do it because that way, they will be easier for modern readers to identify with. I have read several historical novels in which the author has tried hard to make the characters be completely people of their time, and it never really works. The characters are alienated from the reader.

There’s also the point that when they were alive, people in history thought that they were modern, and after all, basic human nature doesn’t change much. Language changes, fashionable ideas change, the state of knowledge changes, but needs and emotions stay much the same. Take a look round the world now. Round the globe there are many different cultures. The difference between them is quite as great as the difference between the cultures of the 21st century and, say, the 18th. Greater in some cases! But good old human nature is there under the surface layer, just the same. I’ve even lived through quite drastic changes in culture. The world of the 1950s, in which I grew up, was very very different from the world of 2001. Yet quite a lot of the people who occupied those worlds are the same people! The words “amusingly modern” imply an anachronism, but that may be more apparent than real. Sometimes I think that the authors who try to make their characters too true to their era, lose their essential humanity.

F.L.J.: You seem very involved in causes. Is this an “antidote” to the isolation of writing?

V.A.: When I became redundant from my job, I took a deep breath and decided I would become a full-time writer. I found it lonely and restricted in some ways. My principal spare time interest is the Exmoor Society. I was taken on holiday to Exmoor (on the south side of the Bristol Channel) as a child, loved the place and went on loving it. I used to go down there to ride, for there is no better way to explore the moorland and the valleys round it. Eventually I joined the society which is dedicated to its preservation and to encourage people to study it and care about it. There is a London Area Branch, and I am on the committee of this.

I also belong to Altrusa, a US based association mainly of professional women, who raise money to further the health and education of women in developing countries. There are numerous Altrusa groups in England and there is one near where I live. One of our projects is to provide classes in literacy and tailoring for village women in one part of India; another is to back up health and education projects in Ethiopia where girls are often married so young that they are injured by having children too early. The damage can be put right, but there is as yet only about one clinic in the country!

F.L.J.: Any advice for writers trying to sell their first novel?

V.A.: It’s never easy. One obvious thing is to polish the novel as thoroughly as possible, then rest it for a while and think of something else (or start another novel!) and then go back, coming to the work from a more objective distance, and polish it again. Then try your best to get an agent.

I managed it because I had written to an historian (Professor Frank Barlow of Exeter University) about a detail of Anglo-Saxon England and he not only answered me, but put me in touch with Hope Muntz, an expert on the era and the author of a best-selling novel called The Golden Warrior. Hope Muntz gave me much useful information and she also, very kindly, read the manuscript of my first book Gildenford set in pre-Conquest times, and then recommended me to Scribners!

Later on, I acquired my agents, here and in the US, because I already had books in print. Starting out is not easy. Sheer determined obstinacy is a useful trait in a writer.

F.L.J.: Any new projects coming up?

V.A.: A further Ursula is in preparation. I also have ideas for other types of book and will give some thought to that when I have finish the current draft. I would like to tackle a modern mystery series, p erhaps set in the west of England, which I know very well. But all this is still just in my mind.


Faith L. Justice’s pre-writing life included work as a lifeguard, paralegal, college professor, and business consultant. She lives with her husband, daughter, and cat in New York City.  Faith’s nonfiction has been published in In These Times, Salon.com, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer, among others. Visit her website.

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Little Dorritt

Written by Charles Dickens

801 pages

Published by Wordsworth Edition Limited, 1996

Review by Faith L. Justice

 

Every now and then, I turn back to the classics and remind myself why they are “classic.” Charles Dickens has always been a favorite of mine, but I had never read Little Dorritt. I picked up a Wordsworth edition (over 800 pages with introduction, preface and footnotes) which sat on my “To Be Read” shelf for several months before I plucked up the energy to tackle it. Once I started, I couldn’t put it down.

The story is simple: a few good souls struggle with fate’s decrees, society’s vagaries, fools and evil-doers to find “a modest life of usefulness and happiness.” Oh, but what innocent souls, twisted evil-doers and delicious fools! There’s a reason why “Dickensian” is applied to certain well-drawn characters. Dickens saw deep into the heart of humankind and had a wonderful facility for bringing people to life in lush eccentric detail. Amy Dorritt, as the titular character, is tiny in size, but huge in impact. She’s gentle, giving, industrious and the emotional bulwark of her family and friends. In spite of being born and raised in a debtor’s prison where her gentleman father was incarcerated for over twenty years, Little Dorritt is beloved by all who come to know her. Arthur Dennam, our other main character, is a man entering middle age and haunted by a secret he suspects and his mother won’t divulge. He’s an honorable man and wants no one hurt on his behalf. But he falls into the trap of denying his emotions and settling for less than he’s worth.

But evil-doers and fools are where Dickens excels. Dennam’s mother is a dried up, bitter woman, twisted by a strict religion and her own pain. Dickens says of her that she is guilty of reverse creation—creating a judging, wrathful god out of the dust of her own image. Mr. Merdle (with a name eerily similar to the French word for human excrement) is the Bernie Madoff of his day; running a financial ponzi scheme that eventually brings down great and small alike, and collapsing several financial institutions. He never speaks for himself, but all of society marvels at his genius for making money and can’t resist investing for the fourteen percent:

“The famous name of Merdle became, every day, more famous in the land. Nobody knew that the Merdle of such high renown had ever done any good to anyone, alive or dead, or to any earthly thing…All people knew (or thought they knew) that he had made himself immensely rich; and, for that reason alone, prostrated themselves before him.”

An ocean of Barnacles encrust the ship of state in “Little Dorritt” and they, allied with the aristocratic Stiltstockings, make sure nothing of any value gets done by parliament or bureaucracy. There are also murderers, innocent lovers, social climbers, treacherous and virtuous servants, grand society matrons and tobacco sellers. All are dissected; their virtues and flaws exposed by Dickens’ skillful scalpel.

One of his most delightful inventions is the Circumlocution Office, mostly run by the aforementioned Barnacles and Stiltstockings, whose sole purpose is to tie up any creative enterprise or invention with so much red tape that it is smothered out of existence. They hone and perfect the art of “How Not to Do It” (in more modern terms “How to Do Nothing.”) Dickens includes a chapter entitled “Concerning the Whole Science of Government” which illustrates his frustration with gridlocked government and ineffectual financial regulators.

Aristocratic society comes in for its share of sharp wit, as well. Mrs. Merdle, whom Mr. Merdle married to further his place in Society, is most often referred to simply as “the bosom” upon which she displays her wealth as a sign of power. The Barnacles, Stiltstockings and Merdles live in “inconvenient houses smelling of yesterday’s soup and carriage horses” because it is a fashionable street. They all bitterly denounce any politician who compromise with “the mob”—anyone not aristocratic, no matter how wealthy or educated.

The middle class and poor receive a few licks for their tolerance of upper class airs and their fear of “foreigners.” The following passage could describe many a modern American’s attitude towards immigrants:

“It was uphill work for a foreigner, lame or sound, to make his way. In the first place, they were vaguely persuaded that every foreigner had a knife about him; in the second, they held it to be a sound constitutional national axiom that he ought to go home to his own country…In the third place, they had a notion that it was a sort of Divine visitation upon a foreigner that he was not an Englishman, and that all kinds of calamities happened to his country because it did things that England did not, and did not do things that England did…They believed that foreigners were always badly off…They believed that foreigners were always immoral…They believed that foreigners had no independent spirit, as never being escorted to the poll in droves by Lord Decimus Tite Barnacle, with colours flying and the tune of Rule Britannia playing.”

Written in 1855-1857, this is a darker story than Dickens’ earlier ones. It still deals with social justice, individual responsibility and governmental accountability; but the satire is crisp, biting and surprisingly relevant to a modern reader. Prisons—physical and mental—and the corrupting influence of money are reoccurring themes. In earlier stories the bad guys get their comeuppance and the good guys retire into moderate wealth and idleness. In Little Dorritt, the good guys are “happy and blessed” in their choice of service to their family and friends. But several of the bad guys and all the government and political institutions are little changed by the end; reflecting Dickens’ frustration with the scandals of his times.

In the Preface, Dickens answers his critics who claim he overly exaggerated several aspects of government and financial wrong doing (bracketed historical explanations are mine):

“If I might offer any apology for so exaggerated a fiction as the Barnacles and Circumlocution Office, I would seek it in the common experience of an Englishman, without presuming to mention the unimportant fact of my having done that violence to good manners in the days of a Russian War and of a Court of Inquiry at Chelsea. [The investigation highlighted the many shortcomings in the government and military prosecution of the Crimean War.] If I might make so bold as to defend that extravagant conception Mr. Merdle, I would hint that it originated after the Railroad Share epoch, in the times of a certain Irish bank, and of one or two other equally laudable enterprises.” [Financial speculation in railroads with boom and bust cycles plagued the 1840’s. The Tipperary and Royal British Banks collapsed in 1856, ruining many small depositors.]

In summary, if you’re looking for a meaty read, you can’t go wrong with “Little Dorritt.” Borrow it from the library, download it free (it’s in the public domain,) or pick up a cheap paperback. It’s well worth your time to revisit a classic author and see how little things have changed in 150 years. Enjoy!

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Faith L. Justice lives and writes historical novels in Brooklyn, NY. Check out her website to read her award winning short fiction, articles, reviews, interviews with other authors and sample chapters of her debut novel Selene of Alexandria (available in print and all digital formats.) Her most recent effort is a nonfiction e-book—Hypatia: Her Life and Times, a collection of articles about the famous 5C Lady Philosopher of Alexandria. For fun, Faith likes to dig in the dirt—her garden and various archaeological sites.

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