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22 September 2020

Shining A Light On Annie Whitehead's Alfreda and Káta

A series where my guests are female writers 
talking about their female characters
(and yes, I'll be doing the chaps next!)

Annie Whitehead's

Alfreda and Káta 


In a great hall, somewhere in Anglo-Saxon England, two characters from the novel Alvar the Kingmaker, meet over a glass of mead. One is Queen Alfreda, whose second husband was King Edgar, and whose son was King Æthelred the Unready. The other is a Cheshire noblewoman, Káta, whose husband was Alvar’s trusted deputy.

Káta wears a simple gown, not shabby, but without adornments. Alfreda wears expensive silk, and her fingers are heavy with gold rings. Káta sits with hands in her lap, and she looks down at them. She has never been confident about eye-to-eye contact. Alfreda appears to be looking past Káta, as if she’s barely acknowledging her right to be in the same room. The author has her doubts about this meeting, and she’s ready to step in if needed.

Alfreda: We never met, did we? 

Káta: Well, we did, but I don’t think you noticed me. But I think our author deliberately kept us apart for most of the story.

Alfreda: Did she think we would not like each other? 

Káta: I think it was more that we both loved the same man. [She takes a moment to steady her breathing.] So tell me about your life, because I think I misunderstood. I was so envious of you - you had the king, you had the riches, and you had Alvar.

Alfreda: Did I? Oh yes, well, it all sort of came naturally to me. I did have to make a few things happen though. We have to do what we can to make ourselves safe. Why did the author tell our story, do you think? I never knew much about you and I could never understand why Alvar spent so much time at your house.

Káta: Well, he came to see my husband. There was nothing untoward. Until…

Alfreda: Oh yes, that nasty business about the death? That really did upset my life and all my plans.

Káta: Did it? You know that my family suffered a great deal over that. It was a difficult time for me, too.

Alfreda: Hmm. Yes, it meant that Alvar spent even more time at your house when he should have been helping me.

Author: Your highness, a little less haughty, if you please. This woman is nice; she could be your friend if you let her. [To the audience]: But Alfreda is not the kind who has women friends. She won’t reveal her inner heartache, she is far too proud, but I can tell you. She knows her appeal, and is well aware of her allure. That beauty was nearly the breaking of her, causing her to hide away. One day she made a fateful decision which changed her life. After that, she learned to use her beauty, and she captured a king’s heart. She was safe then, but that safety came at a heavy price. As for Káta…

Káta: Excuse me for interrupting, but… Are we real? 

Alfreda: Well, I am. I was the first consecrated queen. It is well documented.

Káta: Oh, well I’m sure you are then. I feel real…

Author: You were real. You weren’t much written about and I only found you by accident in a footnote, and I changed your name but yes, you were real. In fact you were the inspiration for this story, because I wondered who you were, and what part you played in Alvar’s story. [To the audience]: This makes Káta blush, because she is really bad at taking a compliment. It’s true though, that she was the inspiration for the story. She too, had her heartache, but she became strong in a different way, always remembering what her pioneering mother said about life, and how one must always look forwards, never back.

As for the question, did they meet? Yes, although they never should have done. They both loved Alvar, but he was the servant of one’s husband and the lord of the other’s and fiercely loyal to both. He knew how fragile the queen was, but he was always drawn to the simple sweet life that Káta lived. She stayed away from court. She was practical, and capable, and also fragile in her own way. The women had little other than Alvar in common, and it was a terrible tragedy that brought them together.

Alvar the Kingmaker is the recipient of a Discovering Diamonds award, a Chill with a Book Readers’ Book of the Month award, and has been honoured with an IndieBRAG Gold Medallion. 

“The story, based on true events, begins when the king is caught in bed with his wife and her mother, and ends with the murder of another king, a crime attributed to his stepmother, the queen. Central to the story is Alvar, earl of Mercia. Having helped King Edgar to secure the throne, amid great unrest he must fight to clear the queen’s name, bring the country back from the brink of civil war, and stabilise the monarchy for Edgar’s son, Æthelred the Unready. He does this at great personal cost, and his enemies will stop at little: Abbot Dunstan, banished, recalled, and in no mood to forgive. Bishop Oswald, the ambitious foreigner who will let nothing stand in his way. They must not discover Alvar’s secret love for the wife of his deputy, whilst Alvar must keep her safe, and serve and protect the queen, who is in love with him and who harbours a dark secret of her own…”

Praise for Alvar the Kingmaker:

“The conflicts between different factions and rival individuals surrounding Alvar’s life are convincing. They keep the drama flowing, and the women in the novel are nicely drawn, fulfilling the lifestyle expected of females at that time yet showing their individual personalities. They also have key parts in the action; Kata, for instance, the love of Alvar’s life, is depicted as quiet yet emotionally strong and open-minded.” Historical Novel Society

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15 September 2020

Shining A Light On Our Ladies : Mary Sharnick and her ladies

A series where my guests are female writers 
talking about their female characters
(and yes, I'll be doing the chaps next!)

Mary Sharnick

and her ladies

In EN PLEIN AIR, the final novel of the Orla Paints Quartet, American painter Orla Castleberry and her Italian physician husband Tino Bacci find themselves part of Angelina Fusco’s active effort to rescue trafficked women from horrific lives and certain death at the hands of the Neapolitan Secondigliano Alliance Camorra boss Maria (La Madrina) Licciardi’s thugs. 

With Angelina, owner of Gusto, a popular Assisi trattoria, Orla and Tino have for six years secretly housed in Assisi “safe apartments” trafficked women making their way to new lives in the Italian north.  

Taught trades and had their humanity restored at Casa Ruth, a shelter founded in 1995 by Ursuline sister Rita Giaretta, in Caserta, a town not far from the port of Naples, the women, many from Nigeria, Albania, and Romania, had been forced into prostitution instead of securing the legitimate employment their unscrupulous sponsors had promised them.  In dangerous nightly visits to Naples’ prostitution hot spots, Sister Rita and her fellow religious befriend the desperate women and offer them a chance not only to survive, but also to thrive at Casa Ruth.

A frequent pilgrim to Assisi and patron of Gusto over the years, Sister Rita had bonded with Angelina over their mutual enjoyment of fusilli, a type of pasta that originated in the villages near Naples.  Eventually, talk over plates of fusilli turned to helping trafficked woman.  Angelina had agreed to join Sister Rita’s crusade.  Soon after, she prevailed upon Tino and Orla to help, too.

While the Camorra’s network of spies and informants most likely had already targeted Angelina Fusco as a long-time enemy of their cruel enterprise, Orla Castleberry’s exhibit highlighting Angelina no doubt provoked them to reassert their dominance and fire warning shots, as it were, to Sister Rita.  

Although the historical mob boss Maria Licciardi and Sister Rita Giaretta are actual personages, the scene that follows is wholly fictional:

“My husband Tino, Angelina Fusco, her eight-year-old grandson Arturo, and I were lounging on the patio of Gusto, Angelina’s trattoria just off the Piazza del Comune in Assisi.  It was Friday, March 9, 2001, the day after Italy’s annual festa della donna.  My latest exhibit, “Women Warriors Against Human Trafficking,” had drawn record crowds to the Piazza Inferiore di S. Francesco the day before.  Italian Ursuline sister Rita Giaretta, who in 1995 had founded Caserta’s Casa Ruth, a shelter for internationally trafficked women and their children, had told reporters she “…hoped Orla Castleberry’s exhibit will not merely highlight the obvious brutality suffered by trafficked women, but more importantly spur both civil and religious authorities to commit once and for all to quashing this heinous, life-denying practice.”
At nine o’clock the evening after, with the exception of Arturo, who was enjoying a hazelnut gelato, Tino, Angelina, and I were drinking grappa and looking forward to a relaxing night now that virtually all the pilgrims and tourists had left the sacred town.  The only people on the patio besides ourselves were four regulars—Paolo, Daniele, Cosimo, and Giuseppe—nightly card-players whose various family apartments faced Tino’s and mine one narrow alley over and up a daunting number of medieval stone steps.  Arturo was reading a comic book under the lights strung above the patio, and he laughed out loud just as a black van with black-tinted windows drew to a stop on the street beneath.

“Movie star or politician,” Angelina chuckled, and raised her glass.  “Afraid to be seen.  But makes no difference here.”

She rose and turned to go inside to ready herself for the as yet unseen customers.  Just as she did two gray-robed, black-veiled nuns, each brandishing a machine gun, leapt from the van and hopped onto the patio.

“Angelina Fusco!” the taller one yelled.
Angelina turned and looked down at them.

“Dio,” she cried, and grabbing Arturo, she flung him to the patio floor and fell hard on top of him.

“Down,” yelled Tino, and pushed me under the round table, then turned it on its side so that the clear plastic tabletop separated us from the shooters.

“Ma che fa?” Daniele growled as he stood. 
“No, Dani,” Cosimo, said, motioning for Paolo and Giuseppe to lie low as he did.

 The machine guns blasted.
Daniele fell first, his body crashing onto the table so that the cards flew. Next the back of Angelina’s dress ran red as her body jolted, then slumped on Arturo who screamed, “Nonna, Nonna!”
I craned my neck to see even though Tino kept pushing my face into the slate.

The nuns backed away, then turned and jumped down into the street.  They climbed back into the van, its invisible driver screeching away even before they had slid the door closed.
Tino and I jumped up and ran to Angelina.  Tino felt her neck for a pulse then, finding none, rolled her body over and off of Arturo.  The boy was bloodied and shaking.  I knelt and held him tight.  By the time we stood, Giuseppe, Cosimo, and Paolo were crossing themselves over Daniele’s riddled body.  People looked down from their opened windows and some came out of their apartments and into the street.  A siren sounded closer and closer.

Tino rubbed Arturo’s head and whispered to him.  Taking him from my grip, he led him to his parents who had come running from the piazza at the commotion.  
“Thank God,” his father Carmine said, as they embraced in the street.  Then Elisa walked up onto the patio and saw her mother.  Her wails rose over the siren of an ambulance that should have been a hearse. 
Arturo blocked his ears with his hands. Daniele’s wife was a yet-unknowing widow.  And Angelina Fusco was dead.

It was all my fault.  I never should have painted her.

Mary Sharnick

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8 September 2020

Shining A LIght on our Ladies : Sarah Kennedy's Catherine

A series where my guests are female writers 
talking about their female characters
(and yes, I'll be doing the chaps next!)


Sarah Kennedy 
My Catherine

My main character in The Cross and the Crown, a fictional series set in Tudor England, is Catherine Havens. Strong female protagonists are not that uncommon in historical fiction these days, and when I created Catherine for the first novel, The Altarpiece, I knew that I wanted to make her different in some way. I didn’t want to focus on a real historical person, as some historical novelists do, and I didn’t want her to be a traditional noblewoman. I had been interested in women mystics and other religious figures from the medieval period for a long time, and Catherine came into being on her own—she appeared, looking down the road from the porch of a church, in my imagination, and she seemed to be asking, as many nuns of the period did, simply to live.

But I also didn’t want to write a, well, conventional nun, as most lead characters in convent fiction are. And I wanted to think about the larger issues of Tudor England, one of my favorite places and periods, and the ordinary people who lived through the massive religious and political changes of the sixteenth century.

In this first novel, my Catherine is still a very young woman—a novice rather than a nun—and she has lived her whole life in the convent, under the control of the prioress, Christina, and the oldest nun, Veronica. Catherine’s life, then, is woman-centered, and this was, for me, a way of rethinking the roles of women in Renaissance England. Catherine is devout, but she’s not very orthodox, and the changes in England after Henry VIII’s break from Rome have thrown her into circumstances she never expected.

There are few records of what happened to nuns after the convents were closed, though more scholarship has been done since I began writing my series, and I wanted to “make history” with my novel instead of retelling the history we already have. Most Early Modern women were governed by their fathers and husbands, but life in the convent could be the exception.  We sometimes think of convent life as constrained, and of course it was restricted and demanding.  But in addition to providing (1) an escape from unwanted marriage, (2) some safety from contagious disease, (3) an opportunity for education beyond the traditional female accomplishments of sewing and music, and (4) positions of real power, nunneries made the mother the primary parent.

The Father was still present, but God the Father was in heaven rather than the next room. Every convent required the services of at least one priest, but he neither lived within their walls nor oversaw much of the daily administration.  The Husband of these “brides of Christ” was also in Heaven and was always perfect, mild, and loving.

But the Mother? The second parent in the secular world, she was dominant in the convent in the figure of the abbess or the prioress.  In Heaven, the Mother of God was a compassionate and accessible figure.  If God dealt punishment to sinners, Mary might be petitioned to intervene on behalf of His suffering children. Even Jesus was seen as a mother, most famously by the mystic Julian of Norwich. In my convent, the titular altarpiece features an image of Mary, and this would not have been unusual. Catherine has, as she says, “prayed under Her eyes” all of her life. It should be no surprise, then, that Catherine believes that she can make decisions about her beliefs and her desires without consulting a father.  

The critic Joan Kelly, back in 1977, provocatively asked whether women had a Renaissance. She concluded that while men were exploring the “new learning,” Protestant women were relegated to secondary positions—with no respectable alternative. Husbands were recast as domestic religious authorities in the place of priests. Unmarried women were condemned, as Shakespeare’s Beatrice says, to “lead apes in hell.”

And this is, in part, why the notion of the Mother is so important to my Catherine, even after she is evicted from the convent. She also has a devoted friend, Ann Smith, who gives her advice (sometimes in a rather grumpy way) and defends her, even when she makes disastrous mistakes.
So: an intelligent, devout Renaissance woman who wants to use her wits in the world and who also has a weakness for handsome men. A friendship between women that is not dependent on family connections or their marriages. An overbearing king who discards wives he no longer wants—and who has two healthy daughters. This is the world I’m exploring. What might have happened?

In the second novel, Catherine tries to recreate a “City of Ladies” (she has gotten a copy of Christine de Pizan’s book as a gift) by taking in former nuns. It sounds like a fine idea, but the consequences are unhappy, primarily because she has married a Protestant. And in the third novel, The King’s Sisters, Catherine finds herself working in the household of Anne of Cleves, now divorced by Henry VIII and quite bitter about it.

Where will Catherine go from here? Well, she still hopes for the success of Mary and Elizabeth Tudor, though even as smart as she is, Catherine cannot foresee that they will become queens in their own right. But they will, and Catherine may think that the world has come her way, with a woman on the throne—and Mary a Catholic, at that. It will be her dream come true. Then again, it may become her worst nightmare.

Excerpt: The King’s Sisters by Sarah Kennedy

The Queen of England had been condemned to die. Another queen. Another charge of whoredom, and this time the evidence had been unmistakable. At Hampton Court Palace, where Henry VIII was hidden away, all the reveling, the feasts and dancing, the flirtations and love-making, had ended, once again, and the king had disappeared into his inner rooms after signing the death warrant. This time, it was Catherine Howard, once upon a time a carefree girl, then a queen, and now a wretch waiting upon an axe. A cousin, it was said, of Anne Boleyn. This one hadn’t even made it to twenty years of age.
Watching from among the viewers who waited for the execution was another Catherine—Catherine Overton, once Catherine Havens. Once upon a time, a novice at Mount Grace convent in Yorkshire, then a married lady, with two children, in her own right. Now a widow, this Catherine oversaw the kitchens at Richmond Palace and she had been ordered to witness the death and provide the details of the queen’s demise to Lady Anne of Cleves, once also the wife of the king, now divorced and demoted to The King’s Beloved Sister. Catherine could hardly believe, at first, that it could happen a second time, that Henry would kill another wife. But the laws were his, and Catherine had obeyed Lady Anne. Here she stood, doing her duty. But she was tired of death, and afraid.
And now Catherine Howard, the pretty royal girl, took her place in front of her former subjects on a bitter winter morning, staring up at her executioner like a child preparing to be corrected.
Why now, of all times, thought Catherine, to be forced to watch a queen die for being a whore? At the very time Catherine Overton suspected—no, she knew—that she, without a husband to her name, was carrying a child. Her stomach rebelled at the sight of the girl up there, preparing herself to die, and Catherine clutched her fur cloak tight, though her own belly was still as flat as any proper widow’s. Like the queen, she’d allowed the court’s frivolous mood go to her head. Now I will be found out for a whore, too, Catherine thought, and my family will be ruined.

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