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.


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

The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin

A few weeks ago, I read The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin which is a fascinating look at the early days of the movie industry. Among Benjamin’s novels are The Aviator’s Wife (a great story about Anne Morrow Lindbergh) and the NYTimes bestseller The Swans of Fifth Avenue. Interspersed with my review are a few comments from the author.

Hollywood – the glamour, the celebrities, the blend of real and fantasy that captivates and seduces. We know it today as a well-oiled machine. However, in the early nineteen hundreds it was a fledgling industry full of determined, innovative men and women creating something new. Melanie Benjamin’s latest novel, The Girls in the Picture, features Frances Marion, who would ultimately become a famous screenwriter, and superstar Mary Pickford along with their long, tumultuous friendship.

Why did Benjamin choose this story to write?I love early Hollywood; it’s one of my favorite times and places. The film industry was just beginning and it really was like the wild, wild west in a way—everyone was young, nobody had experience, they were making everything up as they went along, with no idea that what they were doing was inventing a new art form. And women were just influential as men in those early years.” Why Frances Marion and Mary Pickford? “Not every real person can carry a novel; I’ve learned that the hard way!  But Mary and Frances leapt out to me; everything about them—their personal lives, their accomplishments and most importantly, their empowering friendship—screamed NOVEL to me!”

As the years unfold, the story glitters with stars and movie big shots—Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Samuel Goldwyn, Cecille B. Demille, Hedda Hopper, Rudolph Valentino—and the gradual shift from silent films with simple plots to longer, still silent films and then on to talkies.

Mary Pickford adapts as the industry changes but ultimately fails to make the transition to spoken dialogue successfully. In contrast Frances Marion’s writing talents grow once she gives herself permission to write and to be the “person who could move an audience to a frenzy, and start a revolution of her own.” Frances ultimately thrives as moviegoers and industry executives look for stories with more complexity. For both characters, the challenges of such a dynamic environment are significant. In the long run, as men come to dominate the industry, they struggle to remain in charge of their destinies.

Bookended by two scenes from 1969, the story unfolds chronologically from 1914 to 1932. It is full of insights into how the movie business developed and who was involved. The risks and unsavoury choices facing women are portrayed alongside the opportunities. Fran observes about Mary: “Why had I never even thought to ask her about this kind of abuse; what else had she, and others like her, had to suffer—to accept—as part of the steep price some men exacted for a woman’s ambition?”

Through Mary Pickford’s and Frances Marion’s struggles to find an enduring relationship with the men in their lives, Melanie Benjamin illuminates the complications of love for women in the movie business. “Men can be in love and it doesn’t affect anything else they do; it gives them even more cachet. It adds something to them. But for women, love doesn’t add, it subtracts. Why do I feel as if falling in love means I have to give something up?”

With an impoverished, fatherless childhood, and the role of family breadwinner, Mary was incredibly vulnerable: “… she was afraid of losing everything she’d worked so hard to achieve. She was scared. Every day on the set—every day of her life—she was scared.” Even though Mary was one of Hollywood’s golden stars and had “more experience than any of them, [she] still wasn’t always taken seriously, just patted on the head and told to smile prettily for the camera.”

World War One was a turning point for Frances Marion: “Some people want to be of use. Even women, you know. We don’t all like the idea of sitting at home while our menfolk take care of all the difficult things in life.” Hollywood was different after the war, no longer new and struggling, instead it had become big business with huge international potential because Europe had been so devastated by the war. While Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and two others form what becomes United Artists, Frances goes her own way. “There was a new gulf between them filled with different experiences, different ideas. She could only hope they’d find a way to bridge it.”

In this post-war period Fran reflects: “I was strong. I was capable. I didn’t need Mary to pave the way for me anymore.” And she realizes that her dearest friend had changed: “there used to be a time when she [Mary] understood how to be a friend as well as a movie star.”

The Girls in the Picture alternates between two voices: Frances Marion written in first person and Mary Pickford in third person. Although Fran’s is the stronger, more engaging voice, Benjamin’s approach allows readers to more fully appreciate each character’s motivations, thoughts, and emotions. Why did Melanie Benjamin choose this approach? Apparently her editor suggested it and the approach worked. “To me, it reinforced the idea that this is Frances writing Mary’s story—just as Frances wrote Mary’s movies, wrote her life, in a way, all those years ago.”

This compelling look at two famous women entertains and informs while transporting readers to the magical kingdom of the movie industry. Highly recommended.


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 Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

Bookclub Reads The North Water by Ian McGuire

Last night – yes, this is a last minute post! – my Toronto book club discussed Ian McGuire’s The North Water. The novel has been highly acclaimed – named a Best Book of the Year by Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, New Statesman, Publishers Weekly, and Chicago Public Library – and long or short-listed for many awards including the Man-Booker prize.

It’s a story about whaling in the 1850s. “With savage, unstoppable momentum and the blackest wit, Ian McGuire’s The North Water weaves a superlative story of humanity under the most extreme conditions.”

Almost everyone loved it. I was the exception.

McGuire’s writing is superb. Each sentence carefully constructed for maximum impact. The plot builds and builds, one crisis after another, to create a compelling story, the group said. Readers are transported in time and space – gritty streets of England, the horror of the siege of Delhi (which the main character experienced before signing up as ship’s surgeon), the grime, toil, terror, and chaos of conditions on board a whaling ship, the unsavoury characters who chose that life. McGuire selects words like a poet. He builds not just a story but an experience.

What then was my problem?

My problem was its excessively vile descriptions – based on last night, these appealed to the rest of the group but for me they detracted from the story. A few examples:

“He takes a piece of lint padding and presses it against the wound, then makes a brief incision with the lancet. A green-pink mixture of blood and pus spills out and soaks into the padding. Sumner presses harder and the wound exudes yet more of the foul liquid.”

“He stops, groans, then leans over and vomits out gobbets of half-digested seal meat onto the frozen snow beneath. He feels a sharp pain like a lance jabbing in his stomach and releases an involuntary squirt of shit into his trousers … his beard is packed now with saliva and bile and fragments of tooth-ground meat.”

“In the night the priest has a fierce bout of diarrhea. Sumner is woken by the sounds of loud groans and splattering. The cabin air is dense with the velvet reek of liquid feces.”

“As soon as he pierces the cavity wall, a pint or more of foul and flocculent pus, turbid and pinkish grey, squirts unhindered out of the newly made breach, spattering across the table and coating Sumner’s hands and forearms. The roaring stench of excrement and decay instantly fills the cabin.”

Sumner has just tracked and killed a bear in the frozen north. He has gutted it and drunk from a “hot pool of black liquid – blood, urine, bile” inside the cavity. “His beard is stiff with ursine gore, both hands are dyed dark red, and the arms of his peacoat are soaked up toe the elbows. His mouth, teeth, and throat are caked with blood, both animal and human. The tip of his tongue is missing.”

Five examples. The novel contains many, many more. For me, it was too much. I would have preferred McGuire to have left more to my imagination, to be less “in my face”.

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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 Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website