Anya Seton: A Writing Life by Lucinda MacKethan

Ask fans of historical fiction to list some of their favourite authors and Anya Seton’s name will always pop up. Ask historical fiction authors who inspired their writing and Seton will be near the top of that list too. So, when a publicist from Independent Publishers Group contacted me with an offer to read this biography, I couldn’t get my hand up fast enough!

While writing Anya Seton: A Writing Life, Lucinda MacKethan had access to reams of letters, financial data, publicity materials, and over three thousand handwritten pages of Anya Seton’s journals. After exploring the author’s early years with a domineering, self-centred father and a mother who constantly travelled for months on end, MacKethan relates how Anya’s tumultuous life unfolded in parallel with the novels she wrote. This structure works brilliantly and provides intriguing insights into Seton’s motivations behind her characters and plot.

Anya’s father, Ernest Thompson Seton (his original surname was Thompson), was a naturalist, fieldworker, scientist and prolific writer. In 1896, he married Grace Gallatin, Anya’s mother, who was an author, suffragist and world traveller. Anya, originally named Ann, was born in 1904. As MacKethan tells us, Anya’s parents were “both confident, wilful, and absolutely determined to achieve individual goals at whatever cost. In addition, they both had a sense, in part due to a shared mystical bent, that they were destined for greatness, which meant that they would be not only competitive but also combative about getting what they were sure they deserved.”

Ernest’s and Grace’s personalities had a long-lasting and detrimental effect on their daughter. In childhood, Anya had several homes and often travelled with her mother, which meant that she could not “count on being in her ‘real’ school any more than she would be able to count on a home that she could feel was her own, something that eluded her for decades.” Her father’s absences, his passions for nature and the native way of life, his travels, and his prolific writing meant that he was rarely there to nurture his daughter. In addition, he was prone to criticism rather than praise.

In 1966, she had this to say about her father:

Although initially Anya felt destined to be something other than a writer, “to live vivid exciting things, not write them for imaginary creatures”, “that occupation was in the air she breathed.” She declared that she was “thoroughly aware of the seamy side of the profession–the drudgery, the essential loneliness, and the tough hide needed to persevere through discouragement and misunderstandings.”

Through two marriages, three children, two divorces, and ten novels, Anya Seton struggled to achieve literary success equivalent to the male writers of her time, to secure financial stability, to balance her writing and home lives, and most of all, to find love. It saddened me to learn that Seton also struggled for years with drugs, alcohol, and at times a debilitating lack of confidence.

After writing a few of what Anya Seton called “love pulps”, from her first work of historical fiction, My Theodosia, to her last, Smouldering Fires, her novels won awards, were on best-sellers lists, and earned significant income. They also achieved commercial success through serialization, book club and film rights.

Anya’s novels had recurring themes: the domineering and arrogant male, women held in an emotional prison, three-sided male entrapments, and loving, forceful mothers. Most stories also included a “beautiful, sexually inexperienced girl determine to find a great love.” Writing about Green Darkness, Lucinda MacKethan says: “Anya’s sporadic creative effort during these stormy years resulted in a novel that was indeed full of tumult, some of it horrifically related to dim history and some of it a parable of the inner darkness in which Anya has so often felt trapped.”

While for Anya, there was a “cleavage between writing and living”, she acknowledged that “the purest pleasure in life is intellectual–historical delving.”

I’ll leave you with two quotes in Anya Seton’s own words. The first is written shortly after finishing her final draft of Katherine:

I suppose I write myself over and over again in the heroines.

And later as she reflects on writing historical fiction:

The details of living change fast, but people change slowly and emotions not at all. It seems to me that a story set in any period may have validity and meaning for the present.

Anya Seton: A Writing Life by Lucinda MacKethan

Lucinda MacKethan’s biography is a superb story of a famous author’s life along with her struggles for recognition and fulfilment. Anya Seton: A Writing Life will fascinate readers and authors alike.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Rechabite Letter – a protest

Recently, I posted a letter discovered in my mother’s mementos and written by Reverend William Bell to his offspring, in particular his daughter Isabelle Mallock. Isabelle’s husband, John Mallock, wrote to protest his father-in-law’s Rechabite letter on February 24th, 1842. The protest letter gives an interesting perspective on family dynamics.

To all to whom these presents shall come:

Whereas by a certain document purporting to have been written by the Reverend William Bell, Minister of the first Presbyterian Church at Perth, certain injunction and command are laid upon my family without my authority or permission, and which I believe to be contrary to all law human and Divine. And whereas the said document is not only insulting to me, as the head of my Household, but has for its tendency (?) the disturbance of the peace, happiness, and serenity which has hitherto reigned in my family.

Now Know All Men, by these presents, that I John Glass Mallock of the town of Perth, in the Bathurst District and Province of Canada, Esquire, feeling grateful to Divine Providence for the charge he has given me, and being aware of the great responsibility I am under for the faithful discharge of my duty as a husband and parent – Do hereby Protest against the said Document, and (believing that the curse causeless shall not come) against all the injunctions and commands therein expressed, so far as regards any, and all, of the members of my family, and their descendants.

And I do hereby deny the right of any individual interfering in the management of the temporal affairs of my family so long as it pleaseth the Giver of all good to retain me over them as their head and guide. And under great concern for the danger of those who thus trifle with the Peace, temporal and internal of others, do hereby warn all persons from taking such liberties in future.

Given under my hand at Perth aforesaid, this twenty fourth day of February, one thousand eight hundred and forty two years.

John G Mallock

It seems that John Mallock was very upset with his father-in-law.

Further to the question of who these people are, a cousin (probably 2nd or 3rd cousin by marriage) has put together a bit of a family tree, which I’ll share at some future date. It seems that William Bell is a great-great-great … not sure how many greats – grandfather on my mother’s side. Thank you, Muriel.

In addition, good friends did a little sleuthing and discovered the ‘condensed’ diaries of William Bell – the Reverend mentioned above – plus an entry for him in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Thank you, Patty and Art.

As a final note, I found a plaque dedicated to Reverend William Bell in Perth, Ontario. Note the words ‘uncompromising’, ‘intense’ and the phrase ‘fierce organizational doctrinal disputes’.

I’m feeling like Alice in Wonderland!

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Of Kings and Griffins – an interview with author Judith Starkston

Please welcome author Judith Starkston to the blog. Her latest novel – Of Kings and Griffins – launches today. Here’s what one reader had to say about book #1 of the series: A delightful story that carried me off to a lavish, half-historical, half fantasy world. The result of the author’s mingling of fact with fantasy was a tale I didn’t want to put down.

~~~

Mary kindly invited me to join her on her blog today to describe the historical fiction I write and how it has changed over time. In my case, the changes have been so extensive, I have ended up writing fiction that straddles two genres—historical and fantasy.

I write novels focused on the life of an extraordinary queen—which is true, of course, of a lot of historical fiction. As readers, we are eternally captivated by royal women. “My” queen, however, steps onto the page from an unusual period of history, the Hittite empire of the Late Bronze Age, and she brings along some magic.

The queen I call Tesha, (her real name was Puduhepa) first appears in the historical record around 1274 BCE. She ruled for decades over the powerful Hittite empire, stretching roughly across what’s now Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel. Her great rival, Ramses II, the Pharaoh in the Biblical story of Moses, is well known, but, unfortunately, Puduhepa is considerably less so, because the world of the Hittites was lost to history for so long—literally buried in the sands of time. This remarkable queen corralled Ramses II, diplomatically speaking, into a peace treaty that suited her needs far more than his. He was a notoriously arrogant bully, so that’s an immensely satisfying moment in history to me. The clay tablets of that agreement, the first extant peace treaty in history, are on display in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. This ancient female leader doesn’t get nearly the attention she deserves. My novels focus on the early part of her story as she met the great love of her life and followed a very bumpy road to power. 

Along with being, eventually, an influential queen much admired in her own time even if forgotten later, she was also a priestess who had visionary dreams from her goddess. “Tesha” in Hittite means “dream,” hence my choice of name for her. She performed elaborate rites that we would call magical. The instructions for many of these ceremonies also survive on clay tablets. They often fall into the category of “you couldn’t make this up” and provide a wild and rich source to develop the magical, fantastical elements of the series.

Grounded as I am in history—my training was as a classicist—I didn’t start off envisioning my novels as a combination of history and fantasy. I thought I’d write historical mysteries, using this smart, puzzle-solving queen as my “sleuth.” It wasn’t until I became fully immersed, that I realized the Hittite predilection for psychologically fascinating magic was a vein of gold to mine deeply. I also began to find layers of international intrigue that raised the stakes for my characters and moved the plot of each book beyond the question of who killed whom. My historical fiction had taken “a quarter turn to the fantastical,” to borrow Guy Gavriel Kay’s term. It has been a dramatic journey. As you may notice from the cover of the latest book in the series, Of Kings and Griffins, I also adopted as characters the mythical griffins depicted in Hittite artwork and adorning the walls of ancient throne rooms—and griffins are even more fun than dragons! 

Of Kings and Griffins is book 3 in the Tesha series but is easily read as a standalone. The two earlier books in the series are Priestess of Ishana and Sorcery in Alpara.

For more about Judith Starkston, her newsletter, and the historical background of her novels go to her website.

Of Kings and Griffins by Judith Starkston ~~ A vicious king, vengeful griffins, and a scheming goddess. Can Tesha outmaneuver foes from these three different worlds?

For Tesha, priestess and queen, happiness is a world she can control, made up of her family and the fractious kingdom she and her husband rule within the Great King’s empire. But now the Great King is dead, and his untried son plots against them. Tesha fights back with forbidden sorcery and savvy. In yet another blow, the griffin king lures Daniti, Tesha’s magical blind sister, into a deadly crisis that Daniti alone can avert.

As danger ensnares everyone Tesha loves, her goddess offers a way out. But can Tesha trust this offer of divine assistance or is it a trap—one that would lead to an unstoppable bloodbath?

Escape into this award-winning epic fantasy series, inspired by the historical Hittite empire and its most extraordinary queen.

Many thanks, Judith! Best wishes for your latest novel. I’ve already put it on my TBR list!

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.