Monday, April 9, 2018

April Book of the Month - Ecstasy by Mary Sharratt

Title:  Ecstasy:  A Novel
Author:  Mary Sharratt
Publisher:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (April 10, 2018)
How acquired:  Edelweiss

What’s it about? In the glittering hotbed of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Vienna, one woman’s life would define and defy an era

Gustav Klimt gave Alma her first kiss. Gustav Mahler fell in love with her at first sight and proposed only a few weeks later. Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius abandoned all reason to pursue her. Poet and novelist Franz Werfel described her as “one of the very few magical women that exist.” But who was this woman who brought these most eminent of men to their knees?
Coming of age in the midst of a creative and cultural whirlwind, young, beautiful Alma Schindler yearns to make her mark as a composer. A brand-new era of possibility for women is dawning and she is determined to make the most of it. But Alma loses her heart to the great composer Gustav Mahler, nearly twenty years her senior. He demands that she give up her music as a condition for their marriage. Torn by her love and in awe of his genius, how will she remain true to herself and her artistic passion?

 Part cautionary tale, part triumph of the feminist spirit, Ecstasy reveals the true Alma Mahler: composer, author, daughter, sister, mother, wife, lover, and muse.

My take:  I was first introduced to the story of Alma Schindler in the 2001 film Bride of the Wind starring Jonathan Pryce as Mahler and Australian actress Sarah Wynter.  Frankly the movie was not very good.  The film takes its title from the painting by Oskar Kokoschka which he dedicated to Alma. Alma is a cipher in this film; she wanders wanly through with men throwing themselves at her and then going crazy with jealously as she tosses them aside. The movie can’t decide whether she’s a femme fatale or a woman with thoughts, feelings, or ambitions of her own. For years, I thought that this was an accurate depiction of Alma Schindler Mahler Gropius Werfel. Thankfully, Mary Sharratt has written Ecstasy: A Novel which does a great deal to rescue Alma’s reputation as some kind of Helen of Troy leading men to their doom.

The novel doesn’t seek to tell a cradle to grave story of Alma’s life. It concentrates on the years 1899 when Alma is 19 years old and ends with Mahler’s death in 1911. This is Alma is on the brink of womanhood. She’s impulsive and naïve but filled with ambition, she wants to be a great composer like her idol Wagner. Unfortunately for Alma, her mother doesn’t share the same ambition for her; a marriage to a respectable man with a good income is more what she wants for Alma. And unfortunately, there were very few role models for Alma to follow.  Her mother warns her about becoming one of ‘Third Sex’ women who are unmarriageable because they’ve gone to University or stepped outside societal norms. Alma is bowled over by the attentions of the painter Gustav Klimt who awakens her burgeoning sexuality only to have her hopes dashed by her mother who opens her eyes to what Klimt is really like. Alma is full of passion but she has no idea where to direct it. Her dreams of composing are thwarted not only by her mother but also by her teacher.  

She falls in love with another young composer who she wants to marry, until she is swept away by meeting Gustav Mahler. But marrying Mahler means giving up her dreams to support Mahler.  At first she is happy to help the great man achieve, but she soon realizes what a devil’s bargain she has made.  Mahler is selfish, capricious, demanding but also tender and loving at times. Alma's job was to arrange the world so that nothing interfered with Mahler's creative life. Mary Sharratt has painted a very realistic picture of the toll this "job" takes on Alma. At times, the book is frustrating just as Alma is frustrated in her attempts to have any semblance of a life that doesn’t revolve around her husband.  She’s part housewife, nursemaid, hostess, stenographer, lover, mother and muse.  The novel accurately depicts how women’s lives in this era were controlled and crushed by men. Throughout the book Alma is torn between the what society wants and expects of women, and her own desires and ambitions. Throughout her journey Alma meets women who she longs to emulate but it's almost as if she's afraid to take the risk to be those women.

The novel has a tendency to get a bit repetitive at times, Alma yearns for a creative outlet, she suffers from depression, Mahler composes and conducts, careens from triumph to tragedy.  Some of the transitions between scenes are a bit abrupt but that just may be the way that the ARC I received was formatted.  Alma and Mahler suffer a great loss but instead of it bringing them together, it pulls them apart.  One of the best scenes comes late in the book when her mother admits that she made a mistake keeping Alma from attending a music conservatory as well as a scene where Alma and her mother have a frank conversation about marriage and the toll that it takes on women, particularly those married to a genius.  Alma pours so much of herself into Mahler and his work, that when she finally sits down at the piano later in the book to compose, she finds that she has nothing to say. Ecstasy lets Alma step out of the shadows of Mahler and into a spotlight of her own.

Anyone who is interested in Fin-de-siècle Vienna, the world of Klimt, and Schnitzler should pick up a copy of this novel. It gives a vibrant portrait of the bohemian, artistic world and the sacrifices that artists have to make to get ahead (Mahler converted from Judaism to Catholicism).  The novel also offers a glimpse of what life was like in New York in the early 20th century, a snapshot of the Metropolitan Opera and the nascent New York Philharmonic.  Ecstasy is a thoroughly enjoyable, impeccably researched book.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Scandalous Women Celebrates 10th anniversary

I know that I have neglected this blog shamefully of late due to my involvement in the Historical Novel Society conference and just life in general. So I completely missed that last month, Scandalous Women was 10 years old! Yes, in 2007 I sat down in front of the computer and typed my first blog post. I had no idea that the blog would eventually evolve into a book! And I have all my readers to thank for coming back month after month to read the blog and to leave comments.

So in honor of the 10th anniversary, I have teamed up with my good friend Leanna Renee Hieber of Torch and Arrow to create the Scandalous Women collection! (Psst! You can also buy copies of her fabulous Victorian Gothic fantasies on the site as well!)

I have chosen the following 5 women, all of whom I have written about here on the blog or in Scandalous Women the book, as just a few featured faces for this anniversary collection:


 (Pictured upper left): VICTORIA WOODHULL (1838 to 1927) - Suffrage leader, Spiritualist, Wall-street Stock Broker, First Woman to Run for President (1872) with Frederick Douglass (doing great things) as her running mate.
 (Upper right): ANAIS NIN (1903 to 1977) - Critic, Essayist, Memoirist and Erotica Author

(Center): IDA B. WELLS (Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, 1862 to 1931) - African-American Journalist, Newspaper editor, Suffragist, Sociologist and Civil Rights pioneer
 (Lower left): MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT (1759 to 1797) - Philosopher and author of essays, histories, novels and treatises including the vital feminist text A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mother of Mary Shelley

 (Lower right): MAE WEST (1893 to 1980) - Hollywood Icon, Sex symbol, Indomitable, Unapologetically Herself
Each pendant portrait has been carefully hand-set, detailed and hand-cast in glass-like resin on metal alloy settings with jump ring or bale. A thin black linen cord or a 17 inch chain in Brass, Gold or Pewter-style finish can be obtained at an additional price, see below in variations. As all are hand crafted, very slight variations might occur. Due to Leanna's book deadlines, quantities are limited
15% of sales will go to the Anne Frank Center.

You can find the collection here on Etsy.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Review: Shady Ladies Tours

I'm a native New Yorker and I've been going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a long-time. I've done scavenger hunts at the Met, the Costume Institute is like a second home, it's just a very special place, not just for me but for most New Yorkers. So when I heard about the Shady Ladies Tours of the Met (thanks to Instagram), well I had to know more. I mean Scandalous Women are my bread and butter, so finding someone else who loves them as well, well it was a no brainer.

The tours are led by Dr. Andrew Lear (that's him on the left),  a leading scholar on the history of sexuality, and one of the foremost authorities on the erotic in Greek and Roman art. So you know he knows his stuff. The company offers several tours of the Met, including Nasty Women, Shady Ladies, Gay Secrets and Sexy Secrets of the Metropolitan. It was really hard to know which one to pick! I decided on Shady ladies, primarily because it wasn't sold out and I had planned on going to the museum on Sunday anyway.

The tour was fantastic, and well worth the cost ($59.00, $35.00 if you are a member of the Met or a student. First timers on the tour get an additional $10.00 discount). First of all you are getting an incredibly knowledgeable tour guide. Second, the Met can be a little bit overwhelming unless you know exactly where you are going. I can't tell you how many times I've wandered through rooms looking for the exit (or the bathroom).

The tour starts in the Greek antiquities section, which I confess I often skip when I go to the museum, to head to the American Wing to visit Madame X. Professor Lear takes you to see one of the earliest statues of Venus which is based on a Greek courtesan. By the way, he also helpfully distinguishes what the difference is between a mistress, a courtesan and a plain ole prostitute. For someone like me, who knows a great deal about these women, it was interesting to hear about them from an artistic standpoint. And I learned things about Degas that I sort of knew but it was amazing to hear it articulated out loud. Quite a few woman on the tour were unhappy to learn that the young ballet dancers in his paintings and sculptures were probably also courtesans. But as I pointed out, these girls were not making a great deal of money, so they had to supplement their income somehow. Knowing this, it gives a whole new perspective on some of his most famous paintings.

We also went to visit one of my favorite courtesans Grace Dalrymple Elliott.  Long-time readers of the blog will remember the guest posts that her biographer Jo Manning wrote for Scandalous Women. On the right is her portrait painted by Gainsborough (there is also a portrait of Grace at the Frick Museum). She's fascinating, mistress of both the Prince of Wales (future George IV) and Philippe Egalite, Duc d'Orleans (if you haven't read My Lady Scandalous by Jo Manning, run and get a copy right now!).

One of the great things about the tour is that it doesn't feel like a lecture. Professor Lear is quite charming and personable, and he didn't seem to mind (or at least hid it well) when I opened my trap to give my two cents. Trust me, I've taken a lot of tours, and not every tour guide is quite so pleasant about it! Particularly when you tell them they are wrong (not that I had to do that with Professor Lear, he knows his stuff). Oops! 

So even if you've been to the Met a gajillion times, I highly recommend that you take one of Professor Lear's tours. You will not regret it. And if you aren't planning on visiting New York anytime soon, there is still a way that you can get the benefit of Professor Lear's wisdom. Shady Ladies is planning their inaugural tour of Paris this July! I so want to take this tour. Hopefully Professor Lear will offer it again as well as say a tour of London? 

If you don't want to take my word that Shady Ladies' tours are great, here is an article from the Huffington Post that just might convince you.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Review: Undercover Girl: The Lesbian Informant Who Helped the FBI Bring Down the Communist Party

Title:  Undercover Girl: The Lesbian Informant Who Helped the FBI Bring Down the Communist Party
Author:  Lisa E. Davis
Publisher: Publisher: Imagine (May 9, 2017)
How acquired:  Edelweiss

What it’s About:  At the height of the Red Scare, Angela Calomiris was a paid FBI informant inside the American Communist Party. As a Greenwich Village photographer, Calomiris spied on the New York Photo League, pioneers in documentary photography. While local Party officials may have had their suspicions about her sexuality, her apparent dedication to the cause won them over.  When Calomiris testified for the prosecution at the 1949 Smith Act trial of the Party's National Board, her identity as an informant (but not as a lesbian) was revealed. Her testimony sent eleven party leaders to prison and decimated the ranks of the Communist Party in the US.

My thoughts:  When I saw this book on Edelweiss, I immediately clicked the request button. It sounded like something that was right up my alley. A little known story about an undercover informant for the FBI during the height of the Communist witch-hunt, who was also a lesbian? I couldn’t wait to read it. I’ve written about Elizabeth Bentley, who spied for the Communists, and then turned informant and this period of history has always fascinated me. My enthusiasm lasted all of five minutes.  It’s clear that the author did a great deal of research, she had access to all of Angela’s papers that she saved and donated to the Lesbian Herstory Archives, Brooklyn, read Angela’s own autobiography, as well as the newspaper reports and Angela’s FBI File. Unfortunately, Angela never really comes alive on the page.  It reads more like a text book or a thesis paper. There is very little information about Angela’s early life, other than the fact that she lived in a series of foster homes as a child.  I haven’t read Red Masquerade: Undercover for the FBI, but it has to be more interesting than Undercover Girl, even if it’s filled with half-truths.  

Angela was never a true traveler, she didn’t join the Communist Party, and then become disillusioned, as so many others did when the truth about Stalin came out. No, Angela was recruited by the FBI specifically to target the American Communist Party. They felt that she had an in because she was a photographer, and could easily infiltrate the New York Photo League, a group of amateur photographic enthusiasts, which included a number of communists among its members.  Angela was well paid for her work ($225 a month), she made sure of that. Angela claimed that she wanted to be some sort of hero, but what she really wanted was fame and glory. She volunteered for the jobs that nobody wanted, jobs that would get her the list of party members, that she could then pass on to the FBI.

Angela comes across as ruthless, ambitious, manipulative, a fame-seeker and greedy. She seems not have cared a jot about the people whose lives she ruined, as long as her name was in the papers. Her testimony led to the destruction of the New York Photo League. She was also reckless, the FBI repeatedly asked her not to give interviews before the trials were over, because it could have tainted the case and ruined chances for convictions, but Angela didn’t seem to care.  She had sworn under oath that she had not been paid by the FBI as a confidential informant. If the truth had come out, she could have been arrested for perjury, not to mention that it would have put the trial in jeopardy. The book also spends a lot of time dealing with the other informants and what their testimony was. While this was interesting from a historical perspective, it took the focus off Angela for long stretches of the book.  She also spends a lot of time speculating on the sexuality of J. Edgar Hoover, Mary Margaret McBride, and Eleanor Roosevelt, whether or not they were closeted homosexuals.

Davis briefly discusses how Angela had no qualms about informing on Communist party members who were also homosexual, for example an old girlfriend of actress Judy Holliday who was also a policewoman. That’s fascinating, in the sense, that Angela seemed to have no loyalties to anyone, not even the FBI! I wish there had been a bit more about the lesbian and gay subculture of the Village during the forties and the fifties.  Angela was hiding two secrets, that she was an informant for the FBI and also that she as a lesbian.  The author describes Calomiris as becoming a media darling from her actions, calling her "America's Sweetheart." It's a fascinating reflection on an era where America's sweetheart could be a lesbian with strong Greek features, who had to work hard to try to appear more feminine.  Angela didn’t seem concerned at all that she might be outed as a lesbian! Especially since she was having a relationship at the time with the sister-in-law of her FBI handler.  You have to admit Angela had chutzpah.

Of course, the biggest question is why the FBI, who surely knew or suspected that Angela was a lesbian, would recruit her as a confidential informant? Especially given the prevailing attitudes towards homosexuality at the time? Gay people were not only targets for violence and arrest; they were also considered more vulnerable to blackmail than a citizen of allegedly upstanding moral fiber. Well at the time, the threat of communism was more important than Angela’s sexual orientation.  Even though the Soviet Union ended up being our ally during the WWII, the FBI had been watching the Communists since the 1930’s.  It’s hard to believe that at one point, Communism is seen as a bigger threat than the Nazi’s! The FBI were willing to use any means necessary to root out communism in the United States. While the FBI was willing to overlook her sexual orientation, as long as she got the job done, the Communist Party was not so lenient. She was nearly expelled from the party (which would have jeopardized her role as an informant). Angela had do some fancy dancing to reassure the party leadership that she was as straight arrow as it were.

Unfortunately for Angela, she didn’t exactly ingratiate herself with the FBI.  She kept demanding that they find her a job, but not just any job, it had to be one that Angela felt was worthy of her talents. Working for Life or Look magazine as a staff photographer.  No starting at the bottom for Angela. While other FBI informants had movies made of their stories, no one would touch Angela’s with a ten-foot pole.  There would be no movie deal, or TV show detailing her exploits.  Instead, Angela faded into obscurity.  She took her savings, moved to Provincetown and bought a great deal of property.  She eventually moved to Mexico where she passed away in 1993.

In the end, while this book is an interesting snapshot of a tumultuous time, it ultimately fails as a biography of a controversial woman.  

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Spirit of a Dove - Guest Post by Stephen Bourne

Spirit of a Dove
The closest rival of Josephine Baker, British siren Evelyn Dove was an international star in the 1920s and 1930s. In his new biography, Evelyn Dove: Britain’s Black Cabaret Queen, featuring over 50 rare photographs, Stephen Bourne reviews a life marked by success, scandal, heartbreak and obscurity.
Evelyn Dove was one of the true pioneers of the booming cabaret age of the 1920s. She thrilled audiences around the world and her exquisite stage costumes helped to make her one of the most glamorous women of her time. Evelyn was a black British siren who toured Europe throughout the 1920s and 1930s, courting admirers and fans wherever she performed. Her mesmerising movie star looks and grace captivated those in her presence. The public and press couldn’t get enough of the rising star who went on to replace Josephine Baker as the star attraction in a revue at the famous Casino de Paris. In 1936, amidst a frenzy of public interest, she became the first black British singer to try and conquer America, 25 yearsbefore Shirley Bassey. Evelyn headlined a cabaret show at New York’s popular Connie’s Inn. This rivalled the Cotton Club as a showcase for the best in black talent.
However, Evelyn was unsuccessful at winning over American audiences. Black and white American audiences did not take to a sophisticated black Englishwoman who sang a repertoire of songs in French, German and Italian. At that time they expected a black woman to sing either upbeat jazz numbers, or tear their hearts out with the blues. In fact, Evelyn was disadvantaged from the start. At Connie’s Inn she had to follow the enormously popular Billie Holiday who had scored a big success with her show Stars Over Broadway in which she co-starred with the legendary Louis Armstrong. The personalities and singing styles of Evelyn and Billie could not have been more different.
Evelyn’s career was one of many highs and lows, but at the height of her fame in the 1920s and 1930s she was a young adventuress who refused to be constrained by her race and English middle-class background.
Evelyn was mixed-race, born into privilege in London in 1902 to a West African father and English mother. Her father, Frans Dove, was born in Sierra Leone into a wealthy family and in the 1890s he spent time in London studying law. He married Evelyn’s mother, Augusta, in 1896. Evelyn was educated privately until she studied singing, piano and elocution at the Royal Academy of Music. As a trained contralto, in the early 1920s she hoped for a career on the concert platform, but this was almost impossible in Britain for a black singer at that time. So Evelyn worked in London cabaret shows instead and the all-black cast jazz revues that toured Britain and eventually took her to Europe where she was a sensation.

Evelyn spent several years in Italy where she proved to be enormously popular with audiences and then, in 1932, she travelled to Paris to replace the legendary Josephine Baker as the star attraction of the Casino de Paris. For the revue, Evelyn wore Josephine’s flimsy, revealing costume. Consequently the prim and proper middle-class English girl scandalised her family by appearing semi-naked on stage in Paris and it was said that her respectable and strait-laced West African father disowned her.
 Following her disappointing trip to New York, Evelyn took off to India in 1937 where she triumphed in cabaret at the popular Harbour Bar in Bombay (now Mumbai). One newspaper, The Evening News of India, introduced her as “an artist of international reputation, one of the leading personalities of Europe’s entertainment world” and “the closest rival of the great Josephine Baker”. The review of her cabaret show was rapturous: “Evelyn Dove is very easy on the eye with her splendid, tall figure, and her pleasant face and flashing eyes.”
When Hitler’s war clouds appeared over Europe, Evelyn couldn’t go back to France or Italy. Instead she returned to Britain. Throughout World War II she enjoyed the same appeal as the ‘Forces Sweetheart’, Vera Lynn. The BBC employed Evelyn all through the war, and she proved to be one of radio’s most popular singers, appearing in a wide range of music and variety programmes. Many of these appearances were broadcast to the forces, while others could be heard on the BBC’s West African and Caribbean airwaves. In fact, as early as 1925, Evelyn had the distinction of becoming the first black woman to sing on BBC radio.
Starting in 1939, for almost a decade Evelyn made radio broadcasts, including over 50 editions of the series Serenade in Sepia in which she was featured with the Trinidadian folk singer Edric Connor. The series was so popular that, in 1946, the BBC transferred it to their television service. Evelyn and Edric became household names and they were among Britain’s first television stars in the early post-war years when the medium was still in its infancy. Regrettably, none of their appearances exist, having been transmitted live before technology was invented to make recordings of television shows. 
 In the 1940s Evelyn enjoyed another decade at the top of her profession, with numerous radio broadcasts, concert appearances, and by becoming the first black woman to star in her own television series. The following decade her career took an unexpected downward turn. Work became scarce and, in 1955, desperate, she applied to the post office for a job as a telephonist. But even more humiliating was the fact that she had to ask the BBC for a reference. In 1956 the tide began to turn when she landed an acting role on BBC television as Eartha Kitt’s mother in the playMrs Patterson. Two years later she was back on stage, in London’s West End, as one of the stars of Langston Hughes’s musical Simply Heavenly. Evelyn then joined one of Britain’s first black theatre companies, the Negro Theatre Workshop, founded by her former co-star Edric Connor and his wife Pearl. The Workshop staged its first major production A Wreath for Udomo in London in 1961, with a memorable cast that included Earl Cameron, Lloyd Reckord and Evelyn. The Workshop also gave opportunities for a new generation of young black British actors to learn their craft, including Rudolph Walker and Nina Baden-Semper. In 1965 Evelyn made one of her last stage appearances in the Workshop’s acclaimed production The Dark Disciples, a blues version of the St Luke Passion.
After her star began to fade, Evelyn suffered from depression and in 1972, at the age of 70, she was admitted to a nursing home in Epsom, Surrey. In the 1950s Evelyn had befriended a young singer and actress called Isabelle Lucas who later found fame as Lenny Henry’s mother in the television sitcom The Fosters. Isabelle later explained what happened to Evelyn: “I felt very sorry for her because she had so much talent, so much to give. I stayed in touch with Evelyn until she died in 1987. She was still a lovely woman when she was old. I went to her funeral, but no one else did, apart from one or two members of staff from the home. It made me very sad.”
In the 1920s and 1930s many African American expatriates settled in Europe including Josephine Baker, Adelaide Hall and Elisabeth Welch. They captivated audiences with their songs, beauty, elegance and style. Evelyn stood alone as a black Briton who joined these trailblazers. They were women who created a glamorous new image for black women in show business, far removed from the bandanna-wearing mammy.
Evelyn Dove was a trailblazer who was a head of her time, forging new barriers and facing up to her own personal struggles with determination and defiance. Her spirit remains alive in all of us.
Stephen Bourne’s Evelyn Dove: Britain’s Black Cabaret Queen is published by Jacaranda books ($18.95). For further information about Stephen’s books go to

Friday, April 14, 2017

Interview with Faith L. Justice about the New York Chapter of HNS

I've been a member of the Historical Novel Society since 2011 and I have attended conferences both in the US and in London.  Recently, I joined the board planning the 2017 conference in Portland, Oregon.  In the run-up to the conference, I recently had the chance to talk to Faith L. Justice who is the current co-chair of the New York Chapter of HNS. Long-time readers of the blog may remember that Faith wrote a guest post a few years ago about Hypatia.

Q) Faith, thank you so much for taking the time to answer a few questions about the New York chapter of HNS.  How did the chapter come about?

According to legend (I didn’t join the local chapter until a couple of years ago) there was a Yahoo list serve that was fairly active. Around 2011, someone on the list suggested they get together in person. The first meeting was in a restaurant, the next in a public atrium. They continued to get together in semi-regular fashion with people joining and dropping out until they found a regular meeting space at the office of one of the members. Patricia Rich and Lisa Yarde took over as co-chairs and held meetings quarterly for several years. We’ve recently upped our game. More about that below.

Q) How does the chapter interact with HNS?

We were pretty much left to our own devices. Whenever Richard Lee got an inquiry about a local organization in the NYC area, he passed it on to Pat who reached out, but other than that, not much interaction at all. Several of the members are also active in the national and frequently attend the conferences. There is usually a “conference report” to the membership in the fall where those who attended talk about their experiences and what they learned in presentations. Just recently the parent HNS group reached out about cross-promoting. We’re looking forward to that.

Q) What do the meetings entail and how many meetings are there a year?

For several years the group met quarterly and talked about general interest kinds of topics. The attendance varied from ten to twenty people and a lot depended on the weather. A few blizzards and the occasional hurricane disrupted the schedule. Last year we surveyed the membership, restructured the organization, and got more people involved in leadership. Pat and Lisa presided over the transition and Lisa Yarde is still co-chair with me.

We now have an active Steering Committee that works on programming, promotion, social media, and membership outreach. This past year we met monthly from August through May with outside speakers (agents, editors, authors) at most of the meetings. Attendance is up, especially when we have outside speakers, but we still have to contend with the weather—four of our last five meetings have been during Biblical-style deluges. Our members have to be dedicated hardy folk. We usually take the summer off, but we’re looking into some local trips we might take to museums or lesser known historical sites.

Q) Is the chapter mainly a way to network with other Historical Fiction writers? Do members get together to critique each other’s work?

We’re still working on our mission but the majority of our members are writers who want to advance their careers. There is a lot of formal and informal networking going on. Programming is geared to providing information and resources to writers. We’ve had critique groups in the past and hope to have some again in the future. That said, we want to expand to readers as well. We’re going to experiment with a readers’ group this summer and see if we can make it a more permanent part of the mission.

Q) What has been the most beneficial thing for you as member of HNS?

Personally, the best thing about HNS-NYC is that it gets me out of the house. As a full-time writer, I spend way too much time alone. It’s a delight to get out, meet fellow writers, hear what they’ve been up to, mentor folks who are new to the game, learn from those who have tried something new, and just be with delightful creative people.

As to the parent organization, I’ve attended all the North American conferences but one (coincided with my daughter’s graduation). I initially went for the pitches. Now I go for the friends I’ve met along the way—and the great content, of course! So here’s my shameless plug for a presentation I’m giving in Portland in June with Mary Ann Trail—join us for “HOW FAR CAN A HORSE WALK IN A DAY and Other Questions of Accurate Historical Travel” If you can’t make it to the workshop, button-hole me at a meal or mixer and we’ll talk research—my favorite topic!

Thanks, Elizabeth, for allowing me to represent our chapter HNS-New York City in the run up to the North American conference. Anyone who wants more information can contact me at

Faith L. Justice writes award-winning fiction and articles in Brooklyn, NY. Her novels and short story collections are available at all the usual places. You can sample her work, follow her blog, or ask a question at For fun, Faith likes to play in the dirt—her garden or an archaeological dig.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Review: ENEMIES OF VERSAILLES: A Novel (The Mistresses of Versailles Trilogy) by Sally Christie

Title:   ENEMIES OF VERSAILLES: A Novel (The Mistresses of Versailles Trilogy)
Author:  Sally Christie
Publisher: Atria Books (March 21, 2017)
How Acquired: Net Galley/TLC Book Tours

Back Cover:  In the final installment of Sally Christie’s “tantalizing” (New York Daily News) Mistresses of Versailles trilogy, Jeanne Becu, a woman of astounding beauty but humble birth, works her way from the grimy back streets of Paris to the palace of Versailles, where the aging King Louis XV has become a jaded and bitter old philanderer. Jeanne bursts into his life and, as the Comtesse du Barry, quickly becomes his official mistress.

“That beastly bourgeois Pompadour was one thing; a common prostitute is quite another kettle of fish.”

After decades of suffering the King's endless stream of Royal Favorites, the princesses of the Court have reached a breaking point. Horrified that he would bring the lowborn Comtesse du Barry into the hallowed halls of Versailles, Louis XV’s daughters, led by the indomitable Madame Adelaide, vow eternal enmity and enlist the young dauphiness (this should really be dauphine, who wrote this back cover copy?) Marie Antoinette in their fight against the new mistress. But as tensions rise and the French Revolution draws closer, a prostitute in the palace soon becomes the least of the nobility’s concerns.

My thoughts:  This is the third and final volume of Sally Christie's absorbing trilogy about the court of Louis XV, and it does not disappoint. The story is narrated in alternating 1st person POV, divided between Madame du Barry and Madame Adelaide, one of the six daughters of Louis XV.  The story starts when young Jeanne is still a child. Her mother works for a courtesan in the kitchen, while young Jeanne dreams of a life of luxury and indolence. From the very first chapter, we meet a small child who is fun-loving, lives in the moment, not book-smart, who has a kind heart. She's also amazingly naive for someone who grew up so poor that she has to walk barefoot so that she doesn't ruin her one pair of shoes in the mud. Jeanne is sent to a convent where she is loved by the students AND the nuns, which has to be a first. She's effortlessly charming but hopeless at the whole employment thing until she's employed by an expensive boutique where she meets the Comte du Barry and her journey really beings.

Madame Adelaide is a different kettle of fish all together, and I have to say that her sections of the book were my least favorite in the beginning, probably because she's the complete opposite of Jeanne. Madame Adelaide is rigid, very concerned with her position and the etiquette of the court. She reminds me of that one co-worker who is a stickler for the rules, who reports even the slightest infraction, but who also gives unsolicited advice. The type of person who is always taking classes, and reading self-improvement books and tells you about them endlessly.  Her one saving grace is that she loves her family.  Her love for her father however is possessive, she wants to be his favorite. While she worries for his soul, and abhors his relationship with 'the fish woman' as she insists, she wants to be the one that he turns too. 

However, her chapter gives fascinating insights into the lives of the daughters of France, five of whom never married. They are the superfluous women of the court as they grow older, their influence waning over the years. It's rather sad, and it reminds me of the lives of George III"s daughters, many of whom also never married. The book can be divided really into 2 parts, Louis XV, and afterwards. The book loses steam a bit until it runs headlong into the revolution. 

Christie does an amazing job of painting a vivid portrait of court life at Versailles but also the two women.  While Madame Adelaide considers du Barry (and before her Pompadour) to be an enemy, du Barry basks in the love of the King and the friends she makes at court. Jeanne's character is as uncomplicated as Madame Adelaide's is complicated. Interestingly as the book went on, I found myself growing more frustrated with Madame du Barry and more understanding of Madame Adelaide who eventually grows and changes while Jeanne seems to stay the same fun-loving child.

One of the great things about the trilogy for me was that I knew very little about the court of Louis XV. I knew the names of Pompadour and du Barry but very little of what they were like as people other than Pompadour's libido couldn't keep up with the King's. Since I knew so little, I was able to come to the trilogy without preconceived notions of the characters which I think helped because I was able to turn off that internal historian that sometimes can get in the way when I read historical fiction, particularly about a period that I know a great deal about. You can see how the seeds of the French monarchy's destruction were sewn tighter by Louis XV.  If only he hadn't followed the model of his great-grandfather and been a more enlightened monarch.  Christie makes several comparisons in the novel between how the British monarchy evolved and the French monarchy didn't. 

Any reader who loves intrigue, royalty, beautiful clothes and a dramatic period of history should pick up The Mistresses of Versailles trilogy.