Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Historical Fantasy 24 Hours ~ Margaret Porter

I asked a group of talented writers and historians to imagine their 'Fantasy Twenty-Four Hours.' I placed no restrictions on time period, place, or format, save that they must go back in time. 

This month is the turn of author Margaret Porter. Journey with her as she spends at day at the Georgian theatre. But she's not in the audience...


My twenty-four hours of time travel would return me to my original profession—actress—and the world of the Georgian-era theatre, setting for at least three of my twelve published novels, and two future ones.

I was prepared for my career by none other than the premiere actor of our time, David Garrick. Described by nearly all critics as the greatest performer of his—or possibly any generation, he schools promising young actresses in the elegant parlour of his residence in the Adelphi. His lovely wife, by birth an Austrian, is a regular observer of these instructive sessions, and has been especially kind to me. Prior to their marriage, Mrs Garrick was a renowned dancer and protegée of Lord and Lady Burlington. Their callers are numerous—actors, politicians, even aristocrats. The Garricks are popular within a vast circle of society, and are intimate friends of Lord and Lady Spencer.

Mr & Mrs Garrick

Despite having the advantage of Mr Garrick’s tutelage, I’m not yet reigning queen of the theatrical realm, to be sure, but none would dispute that I am the princess. I well know the unwholesome reputations ascribed to female players, and can attest that in many instances they are justified. And yet not a few of us are women possessed of integrity and morality, whether spinster, wife, or widow. Many a time I have rebuffed unwelcome propositions from—I hesitate to employ the term ‘gentlemen’—rather, from the pleasure-seeking rogues who prowl the corridors leading to our Green Room and dressing rooms. I am not for them, nor they for me. 

This morning, in London, I rose at a reasonable hour and sent my footman for the newspapers, so I may know what has been written of me. After dressing, I made my way to Drury Lane for a rehearsal of our newest play. Afterwards, I visited the milliners of Cranbourn Alley and secondhand clothing dealers in the upper part of St Martin’s Lane—we actresses must organise our own wardrobes for the play. If I am in funds, I shop in Oxford Street as well. My new prominence as a player enables me to set fashions, and because my clothing is admired and even copied, I dress as finely as I can afford.

Margaret the Actress

For convenience, and economy, my lodging is an easy walking distance from my place of employment. In the evening if I’m due at Drury Lane, I dine before making my way to the theatre, and return at an advanced hour. This evening I do not perform, so I have penned my acceptance of Mrs Garrick’s standing invitation to watch the entertainment from the manager’s box. Afterwards I sup with her—and Mr Garrick, if he is able to join us—theatre business often keeps him late. I marvel that in the many years since their wedding day, he and his wife have not spent a single night apart. Such is their devotion to one another.

As additional proof that they treat me very much as a family member, I have paid many a visit to their charming villa at Hampton, on the River Thames. It was designed in imitation of Lord Burlington’s Chiswick retreat. We travel there tomorrow, and I am pleased to accompany them for more than one reason.

The Garricks' Villa at Hampton

I shall now share my greatest secret, which I beg you will hold in confidence. 

Last year, when staying at the Garrick’s villa, I became acquainted with their handsome neighbour, a former actor of good family, well-travelled. He resigned from the stage upon inheriting a substantial fortune and with it a riverside property. His mode of courtship was most endearing, and my admiration was succeeded by affection. In truth, he has won my heart. I have therefore accepted his marriage offer. 

He has shown me his delightful house, with river walk and gardens, and an orangery. I have already grown fond of his companionable dogs and pedigree horses. Someday I shall know the privilege of reading every volume in his well-stocked library.

My beloved assures me of his pride in my achievements, and regrets the necessity of curtailing them. And though I must surely—and willingly—surrender the stage upon taking his name, he proposes an alternative use of my experience and talents: writing. Mr Garrick has been very encouraging to female playwrights—Mrs. Clive, Frances Sheridan, Hannah Cowley—and expresses a flattering eagerness to receive the early fruits of my pen. He fears I might first attempt a novel, also a possibility, instead of a drama or comedy for his playhouse.

A note from Mrs Garrick

My dear Mrs Garrick advises me to follow my Muse along whatever paths she may lead me . . . . And so I shall.


Margaret Porter is the award-winning and bestselling author of twelve period novels, as well as nonfiction and poetry. A Pledge of Better Times, her highly acclaimed novel of 17th century courtiers Lady Diana de Vere and Charles Beauclerk, 1st Duke of St. Albans (son of King Charles II and actress Nell Gwyn), is available in trade paperback and ebook. 

Margaret studied British history in the UK and the US. As historian, her areas of speciality are social, theatrical, and garden history of the 17th and 18th centuries, royal courts, and portraiture. A former actress, she gave up the stage and screen to devote herself to fiction writing, travel, and her rose gardens.

Find Margaret on her Website
and on Twitter

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

The Jacobite Chronicles by Julia Brannan - The 'Baddie' tells his Tale

To coincide with the release of volume five in The Jacobite Chronicles - Pursuit of Princes -
I am delighted to welcome to the blog Mr Richard Cunningham, who has agreed to answer some of my questions... (although I don't know whether his author has approved his answers!)

In The Mask of Duplicity (Volume One), following the death of their father, Beth’s brother Richard returns from the army to claim his share of the family estate. However, Beth’s hopes of a quiet life are dashed when Richard, dissatisfied with his meagre inheritance and desperate for promotion, decides to force her into a marriage for his military gain. And he will stop at nothing to get his way...

Beth is coerced into a reconciliation with her noble cousins in order to marry well and escape her brutal brother. The effeminate but witty socialite Sir Anthony Peters offers to ease her passage into society and she is soon besieged by suitors eager to get their hands on her considerable dowry. 

The first in the series about the fascinating lives of beautiful Beth Cunningham, her family and friends during the tempestuous days leading up to the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. 


AW: Welcome to my 'newspaper', Sir, and good day to you. I understand that you have consented to answer a few questions, which I hope you will not consider too impertinent.

RC: If I do, madam, I will not answer them. I find it extraordinary that a mere woman should be chosen to interview the military at all. I will have a word with your husband about it later. No good comes of indulging women and allowing them unnecessary freedoms.

AW: Let's leave aside the notion that my husband is my keeper, and I shall of course try to keep a civil tongue in my head, Sir. For the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with the Chronicles, perhaps you would indulge me as I take us back to the beginning of the story, as we know it, and ask you how you felt when you rode up to the family house that day, back in 1742, as the new master? What were your hopes, your expectations?

RC: I expected, of course, to be greeted as befitted my status as the master of the house and estate. I intended to use the money from father’s will to restore the house, which was in a deplorable state when I rode up the driveway.  This is what happens when you allow women to take charge – everything goes to hell. I understand that father was unwell for some time before his death, but even so, he could have employed someone to take care of my inheritance.

Once the house was restored and I’d suitably disposed of my sister, I intended to purchase a commission in the dragoons, and use the rest of the money to live as befits a man of some military genius, and to achieve the necessary introductions to those who could help me rise further in my profession.

Of course I had no idea then that father would have been so weak as to be influenced by my bitch of a sister into leaving me out of his will altogether. If I’d known that, I would have returned before he died, in order to persuade him otherwise, while he was still capable of dictating a new will and signing his name to it. And of course to have given him a chance to apologise for the way he treated me as a child.

AW: May I offer my condolences on the death of your father? And of course, Beth's rash behaviour after his death in Book One threatens to disrupt your plans concerning Lord Edward. Tell us about that, if you will? Do you find her a little, shall we say, wilful?

RC: A little wilful?! Dear God, madam. I see now by your choice of words, what manner of woman you are. Your husband has been very lax in disciplining you appropriately. I must definitely have words with him. 

My sister, or should I say half-sister, is a malicious ill-bred bitch, who deceives everyone by her outer appearance. Her mother was no better – the only attribute she possessed was her beauty, and she certainly made good use of that to hoodwink Papa into marrying her. I really think there was some witchcraft involved there. He never would have besmirched the memory of dear Mama otherwise. 

Not only  was she a whore, and an illiterate savage from North Briton, but a damned papist, for God’s sake!  No, I’m certain she bewitched him, not only then, but afterwards too. 

How else can you explain his attitude towards me, his only son and heir, once my sister was born? He loved me until she came along, but I could do nothing right after that. It was all Beth, Beth, Beth. She was spoilt entirely and I was utterly neglected. And when I tried to win father’s attention back, all I got for my trouble was a beating. That’s why I left home as soon as I could. I had hoped to become a captain of dragoons and then come back and show him I was worth his love, but the damn fool died while I was still a sergeant.

Oh yes, that Scotch savage he married tried to pretend she cared for me, but I could see through her. She even said she wanted to be my new Mama! How dared she presume that she could even aspire to kiss Mama’s feet, let alone be a mother to me? If I’d been old enough then, I’d have beaten her myself, showed her her place. She was badly in need of it.

No wonder Beth…Elizabeth has no idea how to conduct herself in good company.  Bad blood will out, And God knows she’s inherited no noble blood at all. She is all MacDonald. But father’s ridiculous infatuation with her mother meant that Elizabeth had no idea how to be anything other than a barefoot, knife-throwing heathen savage.  

If father hadn’t made such a stupid will, I swear I’d have broken my sister’s neck that day when I arrived at the house and she made a fool of me by pretending to be the scullery maid.

AW: Beth's lowly ancestry clearly irritates you, so presumably you must have been happy when Sir Anthony appeared 'on the scene', as we say in the modern world? Do, please, give us your opinion of him?

RC: Sir Anthony Peters is beneath contempt. I despise his sort, who think that a title (although baronet is not much of one), vast wealth, expensive tasteless clothes and low wit can excuse the fact that they are sick, perverted buggerers of boys. It wouldn’t surprise me if he had a catamite at home to keep him satisfied. They should be castrated and then strung up and left to rot in my opinion, as a lesson to others. Or made to enlist in the army. I would love to have the command of a few such as him. I’d soon knock them into shape, make damn sure they never sodomised a boy again.

Of course the ridiculous molly is also very influential. For some reason everyone seems to find him amusing to listen to, particularly women. That’s probably because like them, he’s empty-headed and interested only in the most trivial gossip. What the King and Prince William see in him, I have no idea. But he is very influential and as rich as Croesus, so of course it’s worth being civil to him, especially as he seems to show an interest in Elizabeth. Or rather in her dowry. Like many of his kind, he probably wants to marry some unsuspecting girl and get a brat on her to allay rumours, and leave him free to continue his disgusting sexual practices unmolested by the law. 

AW: In case it's not already clear, perhaps you could explain why it is you think that readers might not necessarily sympathise with your character? Do you think the author does you a disservice?

RC: The author is a woman. Need I say more? Probably most of her readers are of the feeble sex too, so they won’t have the wit to think for themselves, and will just believe all the lies she writes about me. Not that I give a damn about what she or any other woman thinks. They’re good for only two things; f*cking and breeding.

These dim-witted women have no understanding that the reason they can sit in their drawing rooms, drinking tea and gossiping about who’s swiving who in society is because real men like me are fighting wars and getting cut to pieces to save their way of life from those who would seek to destroy it. Like the damn papist French, and the barbarian Scots, to name only two.

If the author had any intelligence at all, I would be the hero of the book. After all, it’ll be a cold day in hell before limp-wristed fops like Sir Anthony save them from their enemies. Can you imagine him prancing across the battlefield waving a jewel-encrusted sword in one hand and a lace handkerchief in the other? The only chance he’d have of killing anyone is if they died laughing at him! 

Now I think of it, once I’ve had a chat with your husband, I think I need to have a word with the author too…

Well! That was quite the interview... Having read the first three books in this series I've come to have strong feelings about Richard Cunningham. For those who are new to this series, I can only advise that you take some of what he says with a good old-fashioned pinch of salt. You might discover that what he says, and what he sees of, the other characters is just what he wants to see. And it's certainly only what they want him to see...

Following on from The Mask of Duplicity is The Mask Revealed. Volume Three is The Gathering Storm and in Volume Four The Storm Breaks.

The 'storm' alludes to events which occur as the main characters move from London and the European Continent to Scotland, where Charles Stuart (the Bonnie Prince) has come to claim his inheritance.

Pursuit of Princes continues the story beyond the rebellion. The Duke of Cumberland seems determined to stay true to his reputation as the 'Butcher' and secrets may not be so much revealed, as betrayed...

Pursuit of Princes, Book Five in the series, is available to pre-order HERE (UK) or HERE (US) 

Connect with Julia at her Website

Monday, 17 July 2017

Music is My Writing Muse by Kristin Gleeson

For the latest in the Writing to Music series, I am delighted to welcome to the blog author - and musician - Kristin Gleeson. Over to you, Kristin ~

As a musician as well as a writer it seems like second nature to have music inform and surround my writing, not only when I think about my story but when I write. And often it doesn’t stop just as background, but enters into my story and even influences, shapes and directs my story.

I grew up with a love of music, always seem to have some tune playing in my head and was lucky to have learned to play a few instruments including harp, piano and violin. My range of music tastes was primarily classical and folk. Over the years I focused on the music associated with Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Brittany and Cornwall, often labelled as Celtic music. My interest in those countries wasn’t limited to the music, it also encompassed the folk tales that shaped the culture and psyche of the people. Ballads, to me, were musical stories and I particularly loved them. 

Over the years I developed my approach to the harp to include a storytelling element and would often perform in a manner very similar to a bard. I composed music, taking in fragments of old Cornish pieces if it was a Cornish tale, or Irish pieces if it was and Irish tale, and so on. One of my favourite songs was the Selkie of Sule Skerrie which I would sing after telling a selkie tale while I played my own composition, and wind up playing the Manx air, Song of the Water Kelpie. 

When I was planning out a novel, set in 19th century Alaska, I discovered that Native Alaskans also had a kind of selkie myth. The novel was roughly outlined in my mind, but one day, as I played the Selkie of Sule Skerrie idly at home I realised it would make a perfect framework for the novel. So as the novel developed the music would play either in my head or on CD as I wrote, and the story would take further shape in my mind as I played the song or any other kind of “selkie related” music in my repertoire.  The novel eventually became Selkie Dreams and is part of the Celtic Knot Series. I made a book trailer with a producer and played the music from the Song of the Water Kelpie and a friend sang an excerpt from the air, The Song of the Seals, (poem by Harold Boulton and music by Granville Bantock).
Selkie Dreams (Song of the Water Kelpie) -Youtube
In my successive novels music always seemed to pop up in some way or other. Many of my characters are musicians themselves. Since I write historical novels, I play and weave in music of the time period as well as the instruments. In the case of my Highland Ballad Series, set in Tudor Scotland and shaped around the particular ballad, Iain Glinn Cuaich, the two main protagonists, Abby and Iain, both play the lute. In the first book Abby disguises herself as a male court musician and enters the household of the Laird of Glenorchy to hide from her enemies. Later on, in another scene Abby conveys a warning to Iain using music and song. 

When I wrote the first two books of the series (I am just starting the third) I would play the ballad and also lute music of the time period. I also looked on Youtube and found some dance music of the time period with dancers dressed in period costumes dancing. It was lovely and inspiring to watch and listen to a gavotte, branle or a galliard to give greater definition and depth to my imaginings. 

Abby and Iain also play the music very popular during Mary Queen of Scots early reign, even one, Lament of the The Master of Erskine, which it's thought was addressed to Queen Mary’s mother, Mary of Guise. Mary of Guise was rumoured to have been loved by Robert, Master of Erskine. The words ‘depart, depart, alas, I must depart from her that has my heart with heart full sore’ echo in the novel.  The Master of Erskine was off to fight the English at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh (1547) and sadly was killed.

I brought the harp into another novel from the Celtic Knot Series, Raven Brought the Light. With two parallel stories, one in the present day at an archaeological dig in western China, the main character Bríd, an archaeological assistant, is trying to escape her musical past that she links to heartbreak and betrayal, only to find that a friend has buried a whistle at the bottom of her luggage. Ultimately, she cannot resist the pull of music and she finds herself playing old jigs and reels on it to relieve her distress during a tense day. 

Her supervisor, a Native Alaskan named John, comes upon her and she finds he plays the Native American flute. The musical mix adds to the chemistry between them, which is linked to an ancient past. That past is shaped in the landscape where in ancient times a pre-Celtic family arrived, one of whom, Tlachtga, was a healer and seer who played the harp.  

In the present day tale I explored contemporary Irish music, which I knew well and could pick and play tunes while I shaped the story or play on CD when I wrote. Towards the end I had Bríd participate in an Irish music session playing and singing which I hoped gave a flavour of what she was used to as a musician and how that could be separate from the heartbreak. For the Native American music I pulled on my past interactions and work and thought much about how it compared with the music form of the traditional Irish and tried to weave that into the scene where John and Bríd discuss the music. 

The music of the ancient past was something I imagined myself from what I knew of the research and conjectures of historians and ethnomusicologists. I decided the harp would be of simple construction with gut strings sitting comfortably on the lap, but something more substantial than a lyre. The harp is an ancient instrument and looking to ancient cultures like the Greeks and the Israelites gave me some clues as well as to what I would describe. It was great fun and fascinating for me, but pure conjecture for the most part. In the end, Tlachtga became a bard, a filídh telling stories with the harp as I imagined it, singing and speaking while using the harp to emphasise the drama of different parts.

Kristin playing the harp

I set my novel, In Praise of the Bees, in 6th century Ireland, around an injured woman with no memory who is taken to a community of nuns. What captures her imagination, and stirs her memory of who she might be, is the singing and later, playing the harp. It’s music that bonds her to her closest friend in the community and music that helps her slowly heal emotionally. 

In the Renaissance Sojourner series, I wrote with a view to one of my protagonist to aspire to be an artist, thinking for this series I would just play 15th century music in which it was set, in the background. Somehow my female protagonists ended up playing the lute as well. Music is just in my blood and there is no escaping it, it seems. 
Thank you so much for letting us in to your world of music and writing, Kristin.

Originally from Philadelphia, Kristin lives in Ireland, in the West Cork Gaeltacht, where she teaches art classes, plays harp, sings in an Irish choir and runs two book clubs for the village library. She holds a Masters in Library Science and a Ph.D. in history, and for a time was an administrator of a national denominational archives, library and museum in America.

Myths and other folk tales have always fascinated her and she combined her love of these tales with her harp playing and performed as a professional harper/storyteller at events in Britain, America and Ireland.

Find Kristin on her WEBSITE
and on TWITTER
and on her Amazon Author Page

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

(Almost) Touching the Past - Medieval Welsh Documents

I spend an inordinate amount of time studying Anglo-Saxon charters, law codes, letters and chronicles. There is something about reading - albeit in translation - the original words; even if these primary sources are not completely contemporary, they are an echo of a voice from years, centuries ago, and it never fails to thrill me when I read them. 

They provide the connection between what we are told when we are being taught history at school, or elsewhere, and what we can discover for ourselves. Somehow, it makes the people from the past become 'real'. And I don't restrict this interest to Anglo-Saxon materials.

In 2012 I visited Strata Florida Abbey, or to give it its Welsh name, Ystrad Fflur. It's a ruin, as you can see. But 'round the back' are a line of grave markers. It is known that many members of the Royal house of Deheubarth were buried here. Was I looking at their grave stones?

It's not known, for sure. Standing in the grounds of the ruined abbey I certainly felt the past, but I edged much closer to it when I read a translation of a Deheubarth royal charter, dated 1198. 
Rhys ap Rhys confirms to Strata Florida Abbey all the lands which it received from his brother Maelgwn, together with his body for burial. [Dated at Strata Florida, original text in Latin.]
I don't know if I was looking at the grave, or marker, of Maelgwn, but it closed the gap between a weathered old piece of stone and a real person.

On that same trip, I visited the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth and I saw an exhibit that made me shiver. In a good way...

Years ago, I had read Sharon K Penman's Welsh Trilogy, and swiftly followed that with Edith Pargeter's The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet. The historical detail in both these series is reliable and impeccably researched. I then read a lot of non-fiction books about the Princes of Gwynedd, and holidayed in the area many times. I'd seen what is thought to be the sarcophagus of Llywelyn Fawr (Llewelyn the Great), and that of his wife, Joan, and visited a lot of sites associated with them, including their Royal Llys (house) at Rhosyr. To stand among the foundation stones of what was their dwelling added another dimension to my discovery of Welsh history.

But the moment I felt closest to this man was when I saw the exhibit that day in the National Library in Aberystwyth - his great seal.

The stories, told fictionally or factually, give a real sense of the man. To see his great seal attached to a document brought him nearer, and gave him real identity. Those who know his story, or who have read the novels, will understand how much more potent it is to read the translations of letters and other acts, which tell us that:
Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, prince of north Wales, agrees to indemnify King Henry III and the latter's men for injuries inflicted by Llywelyn and his men in the troubles surrounding the seizure of Kinnerley. Dated 7th October 1223.
Llewelyn was determined to bring the in-fighting in Wales to a halt, to strengthen it against England, and to establish once and for all its independent status. The above example shows how this was no easy, peaceful task.

If you do know the stories, you will know that Llewelyn and Joan had only one son together. How much more 'real' these characters become when you learn of the existence of a letter, "soon after May 1230", from:
Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, prince of Aberffraw and lord of Snowden, to Eva de Braose, concerning the marriage of her daughter Isabel to his son Dafydd.
Family squabbles amongst the Welsh princes continued, but Llewelyn's eventual successor was equally determined to champion the Welsh as an independent nation. How it must have pained Llywelyn's grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (spoiler alert - he was known at Llywelyn the Last) to agree, on 9th November 1277,
to pay 500 marks annually to his lord, King Edward I, for Anglesey and the land of his brother Dafydd. Dated at Aberconwy.
Poignantly, Aberconwy was the traditional burial place of the princes of Gwynedd. It no longer exists, a victim not of the ravages of time, but of Edward's order for the destruction of the abbey and to use the stones to build Conwy Castle and the surrounding walled town.

A letter from Eleanor, princess of Wales and lady of Snowden (Llywelyn's wife, and daughter of Simon de Montford) was written to Edward, sometime between 1279 and 1281,
asking him not to heed those who say damaging things to him about her and her husband. 
Eleanor died in childbirth, and by all accounts Llywelyn was devastated. He himself came to an end at Cilmeri, not far from Buellt Wells.

A letter from Roger le Strange to Edward I:
informs the king that the troops under Roger’s command fought with Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in the land of Built on Friday next after the feast of St. Nicholas (December 11th, 1282], that Llywelyn ap Gruffudd is dead, his army defeated, and all the flower of his army dead, as the bearer of the letter will tell. [French]
I visited Cilmeri on a damp and drizzly day and stood for a while at the spot where reportedly Llywelyn's head was washed,

and then I stood for a moment by his memorial.

It was a sombre moment, but for a glimpse of the man who was not known as 'the last' while he ruled, how about this prosaic letter, from 
Llywelyn, prince of Wales and lord of Snowdon, to Guncelin de Badlesmere, justice of Chester, asking him to defer the business of the corn in Anglesey until Llywelyn has received clarification from the king regarding a certain obscure word in the king's charter on this matter.
No blood, no guts, no tragedy, but a glimpse into the everyday medieval world, and a sense of the tension between proud Welsh Princes and their would-be overlords. This is when history comes to life for me.

[all photographs by and copyright of the author]

Further reading:
English Historical Documents Vol II Ed. D Douglas
Handlist of the Acts of Native Welsh Rulers - KL Maund
The Taming of the Dragon - Bartlett
The Welsh Kings - KL Maund
The Welsh Princes - Turvey
Here Be Dragons, Falls the Shadow, The Reckoning - SK Penman
The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet - Edith Pargeter

Thursday, 6 July 2017

The Many Faces of Arthur - A Reader's Viewpoint

King Arthur: real person, a myth, a legend, a Welshman? A Northerner? A novelist's delight?

My grandfather was an English teacher, and subsequently the headmaster of a boys' grammar school. That's all I need to tell you for you to imagine the number of books he had in his house. Periodically he would have a partial clear-out, and he used to give me the lion's share of his books about the early medieval world. Consequently I became the owner of several books about the Celts, and not a few about King Arthur, almost all of them written by Geoffrey Ashe. 

My A Level project was about the Celts, and I have continued over the years to research and take an interest in them. But Arthur? Not so much. Beyond scarcely believing that he was ever even a real figure, I thought about him only when I got cross with interpretations which focused on the magical, the medieval, the Malory version of the tales. Nope, Arthur wasn't for me.

And yet, on one shelf alone, I have six novels, by four authors, and they are all stories of Arthur.

So, why? What is it about these books that caught - and held - my interest? I've tried to list these books in the order in which I first read them, but memory plays games, doesn't it? 

The only one I can pin down with any certainty is Parke Godwin's Firelord, because I remember my sister recommending it to me, along with Sharon Penman's The Sunne in Splendour, for something to read to fill the evenings when, having recently graduated and in my first job, I was living on my own for the first time.

I know I read Helen Hollick's books after I'd discovered Sharon Penman, and the date inside my copy of the first in her trilogy suggests that I came to them nearly a decade later. I would swear I read Persia Woolley while I was still a student, but I graduated in 1985, and my copy is dated 1988.

Thus, I think the first of these books to entertain me was The Mists of Avalon by Marion Bradley (my copy is dated 1983)

Now, despite what I've just said about not liking too much magic and mysticism, this novel is told from the point of view of Morgaine, who has the gift of 'sight'. In some respects this is a fairly faithful recreation of the Arthurian legend, but there are twists, most of which I can't reveal for fear of spoiling the plot. 

Morgaine is not an evil witch, and although she remains responsible for much of what happens, she is given a believable and poignant backstory. Some characters from the legend are fused, so that Galahad is also known as Lancelot, but others become three dimensional; in particular, Gwenhwyfar, who has a more powerful reason for her betrayal of Arthur than simply being smitten by a dashing knight. The clash between the old and new religions adds a powerful dimension to the story, too, and roots it more firmly in its historical context.

Bradley's story is told through the eyes of the women, but Parke Godwin went completely the other way and made Arthur the narrator. My copy of Firelord is dated 1980 but I must have read it around 1986-87.

Arthur lies dying, and looks back over his life, dictating to the young monk, Brother Coel. It's a surprising reworking of the story: 
"Damn it, I haven't time to lie here. Whatever comes, there's more for a king to do than squat like a mushroom and maunder on eternity."
Godwin gives Arthur a distinctive voice, and his tale is one based on such history as consensus suggests we have; that Arthur sprang from the dying embers of Roman Britain. Again, Morgana (as she is called in this version) is a sympathetic character. The love stories do not play out quite as expected, and while there are still certain elements of the legend, I recall that my sympathies ended up lying in unexpected places. The characterisation was sharp, different, and refreshing. 

Persia Woolley's Child of the Northern Spring shifts the focus back onto the female perspective. This is volume one of a trilogy, and for reasons long-forgotten now, I didn't ever read the other two volumes. Much of the first volume is taken up with Guinevere, daughter of the Cumbri, whose leader is the king of Rheged. She journeys from her homeland to marry Arthur, recounting tales from her past as she goes. Characters from the legend appear, such as King Mark and Tristan, along with Uther, King Lot and Igraine. I remember as I read this book that it didn't feel like I was reading the tale of Arthur necessarily, but a book set in similar times and with similar characters. Years later, watching the film First Knight, with its emphasis on Guinevere having come from a different country, I was reminded of Woolley's book.

Helen Hollick's Pendragon Trilogy dispenses with all the fantasy/magic elements of the tale. In this version, Gwenhwyfar is still the daughter of a foreign king, but in this instance she is the progeny of Cunedda, king of Gwynedd. To describe Hollick's Gwen as 'feisty' is to do her a disservice. She is courageous, and she is more than a match for Arthur.

The love story is far from simple and is satisfying, but what really struck me about this telling of the legend is that it simply didn't feel like I was reading about fictional characters at all. Removing the sorcery and leaving behind just the swords, the author paints a picture of a time in history, just as believable as anything from the pages of a Penman or a Chadwick historical novel. 

Unlike with Child of the Northern Spring, I never lost sight of the fact that this was the Arthurian tale, but I believed in these characters as real, historical figures. It was an indulgent delight, too, that just as with Penman's Welsh trilogy, I was able to settle down with not one, but three chunky volumes. I stayed with these people so long, that they occupied my thoughts for a long while afterwards.

So, no, I'm still not a huge fan of the non-fictional Arthur. I make a vague mental note when yet another theory emerges about him, that he was a Welshman, a Scot, a Yorkshireman, but where his appeal lies for me, is in his capacity to be so many things to so many different authors, and the proof that a tale can be retold in numerous ways, and always have something new to say.

Which Arthurian novels have you read, and loved, and why?