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Thursday, 24 November 2011

Out Today! The Courtesan's Lover by Gabrielle Kimm


It’s strange, when you are writing a novel, how sometimes a character simply won’t leave you alone. Just when you think it’s safe to go back to the keyboard, they start badgering away at you again, demanding more of your time and insisting on being heard. Francesca Felizzi, the central character of my new novel ‘The Courtesan’s Lover , was a bit like this. She originally appeared as a secondary character in my first book, ‘His Last Duchess’. As I wrote that first novel, though, I had no plans to continue Francesca’s story. ( In fact, at one point, one of my sisters even began exhorting me to kill her off! My instant certainty that this was a total impossibility should perhaps have warned me that Francesca was not planning on going quietly at the end of the book.)

His Last Duchess’ (Sphere 2010) tells a possible back story to Robert Browning’s well known monologue ‘My Last Duchess’, and fictionalises the ill-fated marriage of the fifth duke of Ferrara and the very young Lucrezia de’ Medici in the mid sixteenth century. As part of that story, I gave my duke a mistress. He is a damaged and difficult man, though, and I knew that anyone prepared to cope with the demands of a relationship with so volatile and dangerous a lover would have to be a seriously resourceful woman. Which is exactly what Francesca turned out to be. Spotted by the duke and rescued by him from life as a street-whore in Ferrara, she spends the best part of eight years as his paid mistress, and learns much about survival and self-preservation along the way. Francesca is beautiful and sexy and clever and fundamentally adaptable, and she uses all these attributes shamelessly.

I finished ‘His Last Duchess’, with a strong sense of having completed my journey with my characters. I was happy with where they all were at the end of the story, and I really didn’t need to know any more about them. I was ready to say goodbye to them. Except for Francesca. I couldn’t get her out of my head. She just kept on and on intruding, interrupting, elbowing her way to the front of my thoughts, and demanding to be given more space to exist. I knew I was going to have to listen to her.

It took time to discover what she was going to be doing in the course of this new book, in which she was going to play the starring role, though. She was, I knew, going to be fighting hard to become a courtesan – a cortigiana onesta - and she was going to be doing this in Naples. In his book ‘On Becoming a Novelist’, John Gardner says that ‘setting exists so that the character has some place to stand, something that can help define him.’[1] I had to stand Francesca somewhere, and it had to be somewhere new, away from the setting of the previous novel. The Naples of the sixteenth century, unwillingly under Spanish rule, was a chaotic, anarchic, ebullient melting-pot of a city- a perfect place in which to allow my complex, confused courtesan to tackle her problems.

As you can imagine, I read and read and read about the great courtesans of history – Veronica Franco, Ninon de l’Enclos, Harriette Wilson and Cora Pearl amongst others – and I was simply blown away by the courage and independence of these extraordinary women, who basically functioned in society as autonomous, successful businesswomen in centuries in which their more virtuous sisters had little or no freedom, either financially, socially or sexually.

The courtesans were, in many ways, amazing. And seriously naughty! Even by today’s standards, in some cases. As an example, one nineteenth century Parisian courtesan appeared at a high-society fancy-dress ball one year ... as “Eve”. Wearing not even a fig leaf! I can’t imagine even the most outrageous of today’s celebrities getting away with that. Can you?

Life as a courtesan was not all plain sailing though, for even the most successful. Penury, danger and disease lay in wait around every corner and many of them ended their lives in anonymous poverty. As Veronica Franco says, (in a quote I decided to include at the beginning of my book) “It is too miserable, and contrary to human reason, to force your body and energy into such slavery: terrifying even to think about.” She goes into graphic detail about the terrors that await the unwary courtesan – not least of which was the ever-present fear of going to hell. I was anxious not to allow myself to be too caught up in the romantic exuberance of the great courtesans, and wanted to be certain that the potential danger and degradation of Francesca’s situation would not be overlooked as I began to tell her story. So to bring myself back down to earth, I read a number of accounts written by modern, contemporary sex-workers – frank, honest, vulgar, frightening, touching, heartbreaking descriptions of a way of life most of us can’t actually even contemplate. These accounts were sobering and shocking, and they provided the contrast I needed.

I felt I understood Francesca better, for having heard in such detail from her twenty first century counterparts. I hope, if any of them read the book, they will feel I’ve understood them.

It’s been an extraordinary journey for me, getting this close to a courtesan. Something of a privilege. Francesca’s story – ‘The Courtesan’s Lover’ will be published by Sphere (an imprint of Little, Brown) in November 2011.

Twitter @gabrielle_kimm

[1] from On Becoming a Novelist (Norton 1983 p52)

Monday, 14 November 2011

Middle Time by Priya Vasudevan

I first saw Hampi by moonlight, the outer battlements of the city wall glimmering, and the enchantment slithered into my subconscious, unfurled and remains to this day. The next day, sitting in the Queen's Bath, I slipped back in time and Achale danced before me, out of the keys, onto the page. While Achale remained a part of me, I heard the first faint whispers of her story only when I read about the strange case of the boy-saint, a widow's son who came out of the temple pond with his sacred thread, in the colonial gazetteer.

This is a true story, which happened in Virinchipuram, Tamilnadu, India. In the book, I set this incident in the fictional village of Alur, near Hampi.

The theme was born out of the desire to rewrite history from the woman's perspective, not as a victim as she is so often shown, but as an individual, making the best of her circumstances. Hence, Achale, courtesan but not prostitute, a career woman who gets waylaid but not derailed, by life. Maya, the other protagonist, seemed to me the ideal counterpoint to Achale- the modern career woman- how far has she journeyed?

What started me on this journey was an article in the woman’s journal, ‘Manushi’ about women saints and sainthood being an act of liberation. Religion, even in modern India, occupies not only the headlines but page three as well. More so in Vijayanagara, where an empire was established allegedly to rejuvenate an ailing religion. The sacred and the profane are closely interlinked in the religious discourse and sexuality is but an expression of love for the divine. I was intensely interested in AK Ramanujan's translations of Tamil poetry of the saints in ' Speaking of Siva,' the meta physical yet erotically charged imagery of secular poetry and Hindu philosophy which links Creation, procreation and destruction in the dances of the Gods.

The title ‘Middle Time’ alludes to the medieval era, of course, in which part of the novel is set. It is also a reference to the continuity of time, its cyclical nature. Between Hampi in the middle ages, and Chennai in 1996 there is a similarity - in that society was changing and economic opportunities were growing. As well, there was a religious revival sweeping through India in both periods and governance was at an all-time low.

Priya's blog-

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Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Polly's Story by Jennie Walters

The ‘Swallowcliffe Hall’ trilogy: ‘Polly’s Story’, ‘Grace’s Story’, ‘Isobel’s Story’

It was dates that inspired me to write my three ‘Swallowcliffe Hall’ books. I suddenly realized that a young Victorian girl could have had a daughter of that age in 1914, on the brink of the First World War, and a grand-daughter her age in 1939, on the eve of the Second. So there was the timeline for my three novels: these fascinating periods of history. I decided to root the stories in a grand old English country house, large enough to accommodate an army of servants besides the aristocratic family who’ve lived there for generations. I wanted the house to become another character, regarded in a very different light by each of my three heroines. Polly, who comes to the house as under-housemaid in 1890, wants nothing more than to stay there and serve the Vye family for the rest of her life. Her daughter Grace, a reluctant kitchenmaid, is stifled and suffocated by the Hall; she manages to find work in the stables when the male servants go off to fight in the war, but still feels the restrictions of servant life – especially when she falls in love with a member of the Vye family, and he with her. And although Grace is determined her own daughter, Isobel, will have nothing to do with Swallowcliffe, she has no choice but to send her there to convalesce after a bout of TB in 1939, when the country is on the brink of war. Isobel is captivated by the Hall’s crumbling beauty and the chance of sanctuary it provides for Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe.

Each girl’s reaction to the house and to the world of service gave me a clue into her character, a starting point to examine all sorts of other thoughts and emotions. I became fascinated by the way in which the world changed between 1890 and 1939, all in the lifetime of my first heroine, and realized my own grandmother had lived through the same tumultuous time. If only I could have asked her about it! I also loved finding out about the strict code that governed the servants’ hall in a big country house: the upper servants departing to take their pudding in the housekeeper’s parlour, the under-housemaids who were only allowed to dust the legs of drawing-room furniture rather than the surface, the condescending ‘Rules for the manners of servants in good families’: do not smile at droll stories told at the table, do not enter into conversation with your mistress, give any information required in as few words as possible. ‘Downton Abbey’ has its appeal, but it’s just as well those days have gone and we’re living in more open, fairer times today.

For a wealth of background information into the stories, including original photographs, extracts from servants’ letters, and much more, visit

where you can also purchase the book as an e-book or in print