30 August 2014

HNS Indie Award 2014 Finalist, Linda Proud

This year, 2014, the Historical Novel Society has introduced for the first time, an annual award for the best Indie / Self-Published Historical Novel, with winner and runner-up prizes kindly sponsored by Orna Ross, bestselling literary novelist and director of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) and Geri Clouston of Indie B.R.A.G. There were eight eventual short-listed writers, from which four finalists were chosen by Orna Ross, with award-winning historical novelist Elizabeth Chadwick selecting the winner and runner-up.

Our judges found it very difficult to make their selections as the quality of writing 
was excellent, and to thank the authors, I would like to feature them all here on my Blog

So please welcome Finalist
Linda Proud and her novel 
A Gift for the Magus

I began writing what turned out to be a trilogy set in the Florentine Renaissance back in 1974. The final volume was published in 2008. It was my life’s work. I’d dedicated everything to it, been a little obsessed, shall we say (on one embarrassing occasion I’d dated a cheque ‘1476’ and got a kindly note from Lloyds saying they were not the Medici bank). So what happens when you finish your life’s work? Do you retire? Die? In a slightly panicky fashion I didn’t dare take so much as a day off, but what was going to be next?

A friend supplied the answer. ‘How about a novel on Cosimo de’ Medici?’ Now that caught my interest, for he was the grandfather of Lorenzo the Magnificent, a major character of the trilogy, and so much of the glory of the second part of the fifteenth century was rooted in Cosimo’s age in the first half. The idea of a biographical novel did not appeal. Where’s the story? Where does it begin and end? But then I remembered another story of the time, one that had made a cameo appearance in the trilogy. One of the characters is Filippino Lippi, apprentice to Botticelli and bastard son of a liason between a friar and a nun. Now, there’s a story. And it could act as a prequel to the trilogy.

Naturally it has already been written, many times, most famously by Robert Browning in the poem, Lippi. He’s a loveable rogue, our Fra Filippo Lippi, and the Victorians enjoyed his naughtiness. But what was the real story here? After all, this gambling, womanising friar of the order of the Carmelites had painted some of the holiest, most beautiful images of the early Renaissance. The one I used on the cover, of the Madonna and Child, is so beloved by the Florentines they call it ‘la Lippiana’.

 Leon Battista Alberti, who wrote ‘On Painting’ (1436), said that to be a good painter you must be a good man. This is the kind of conundrum I enjoy solving. Either Alberti was wrong, or Lippi was good, because there is no denying the quality of his art.

Research was difficult. The life of Lippi has been written by art historians who, like all historians, only have to give you the facts and are not obliged to make sense of them. Almost immediately I learned that Lippi hadn’t abducted just one nun from her convent: he had abducted them all. Five nuns. All living in the house of a painter in the centre of a gossipy little town near Florence called Prato, a place where they liked to birch whores naked. On the same square, what is now the cathedral and its ecclesiastical administration. So Fra Filippo lived with five nuns under the eye of both church and town. How on earth did he get away with that?

On such questions, novels are built.

The relationship between Cosimo and Filippo, his favourite painter in an age which boasted such alpha males as Masaccio and Brunelleschi, is brought to life by Vasari in his Lives of the Painters. I only had to contextualise the stories, such as the one where Cosimo locked Filippo in a room in his house so that he would finish a painting, and Filippo escaped by knotting bedsheets together and climbing out of the window. I had to find out where in Lippi’s life these things happened and make a guess as to which painting he was being made to complete. A tradition that as a young man he was captured by pirates and spent two years as a slave in North Africa I made part of the story. Novelists can do that.

There are self-portraits of Filippo. He was not a handsome man. Pudgy-faced and portly. But he was beloved by the very beautiful Lucrezia Buti (to whom he was not faithful). I had to put this humpty dumpty of a story back together again and make all the contradictions in one character psychologically plausible. In the end Lippi made sense through the eyes of his apprentice, the fourteen year old Alessandro Botticelli, who loved his master while standing appalled at much of what he did.

Are good painters good men? If so, then perhaps our ideas of what constitutes goodness need examination. It is the philosopher, Marsilio Ficino, who in the story takes Filippo apart, examines the details, weighs his heart and does not find him wanting.

With  A Gift for the Magus my time in the Florentine Renaissance is over. I loved every moment of those thirty years of research and writing about Italy, but my research trip to Prato was probably the last. I am wearied now by air travel and, besides, the Tuscany of my imagination is a whole lot more wonderful than the real thing with its autostrade, valley industries, poverty, government corruption, triple-dip recession. In my writing life, I’m into injury time, and I’m spending it in Iron Age Britain where research trips can be done in a day, or even just walking out from where I live. It’s here, right here, under my feet. All I have to do is make sense of what facts are known and find the story.
It looks like it might be turning into a trilogy…

Lindsay Clarke praises the remarkable work of a seriously under-rated novelist
[Review for Resurgence magazine]

A Gift for the Magus
Linda Proud
Godstow Press (www.godstowpress.co.uk) 2012
ISBN 978-1-907651-03-8

Since the monetary values of the corporate world began to dominate the mainstream publishing houses several fine novelists who are neither celebrities nor mass-market best-sellers have found it increasingly difficult either to get their work into print at all or for their books to receive much attention from the media. Fortunately a number of small independent publishers have found courage to do something about this unsatisfactory state of affairs. As both co-founder of Godstow Press and an excellent novelist whose work has largely been ignored by the literary establishment, Linda Proud is a significant figure in this development, and her strong, beautifully presented new novel demonstrates precisely why it matters.

A Gift for the Magus is a prequel to her Botticelli Trilogy of novels and this review wants to draw to all four books the serious attention they deserve. Mostly set in Renaissance Florence, the Trilogy follows the fortunes of a young scribe, Tommaso de’ Maffei, in his encounters with the friends and enemies of Lorenzo the Magnificent and the artists and thinkers who lent his court such glittering distinction. True both to the spirit and dramatic history of the Quattrocentro, these engaging narratives offer convincing portraits of such luminaries as Botticelli, Simonetta Vespucci, Poliziano, Leonardo da Vinci, Pico della Mirandola, Savonarola, Erasmus and the English Platonists and, behind them all, the intriguingly elusive figure of Marsilio Ficino, whose wisdom and scholarship inspired one of the most important evolutions of European culture. Yet all these formidable characters and themes are imagined with the confidence, fidelity and good humour of an author so deeply engrossed in her material that the novels almost read as an artistically satisfying act of channelling. One might equally well say as an act of love.

A great painting by Botticelli inspired each volume of the trilogy (La Primavera, Pallas and the Centaur and The Birth of Venus), and each of them sticks to the known facts of history supplemented by the vigorous activity of what the author calls the ‘rational imagination’, which is both highly intuitive and capable of deeply compassionate understanding. By the end of the third volume Lorenzo is dead and the glory of Florence has been scourged by Savonarola’s bonfire of the vanities; but Tomasso has recovered what he had lost - the courage to love - and his story affirms that ‘the divine world is here, now, but we clothe it in temporality, in desire, in misery, and know it not.’

 One might have thought the demanding task completed there, but Linda Proud’s questing imagination was drawn deep into her fascination with the morally complex character of Fra Filippo Lippi and a compelling new novel, A Gift for the Magus, emerged. Set earlier than the trilogy, it tells the story of an artist who combined an angelic vision and the skill of a master craftsman with a talent for procrastination and for frequently falling in and out of trouble. While offering masterful depictions of the worldly-wise Cosimo de Medici and the saintly Fra Angelico, the novel’s main concern is to interrogate the true nature of goodness through a humane appraisal of a man whose appetite for life rendered him incapable of fidelity to his monastic vows. Like the books of the Trilogy it’s a terrific read.

Novels which offer a beguiling narrative while exploring the ambiguities of experience, the rich symbology of great art and the claims of the spiritual intellect are rare these days. Linda Proud’s historical novels stand up well beside those of Mary Renault, Zoe Luxembourg and Marguerite Youcenar. They deserve much wider public attention than they have been afforded.

About the Author
Born in 1949 in Hertfordshire, UK, Linda Proud started writing historical fiction early, in school exercise books. Around the age of 14 she had discovered the novels of Mary Renault, set in ancient Greece, and fallen in love with the genre which brings the past to life.
 In 1971 she began a career in picture research in publishing and, after a few years, went freelance in order to devote more time to writing. The Botticelli Trilogy had seeded itself as an idea in 1974, but it was to take 11 years to do the research and develop writing skills. The first volume, A Tabernacle for the Sun, won a bursary award from Southern Arts and a month's residence at the writers' retreat of Hawthornden Castle. It was published by Allison and Busby in 1997. The publisher, however, refused the second volume, Pallas and the Centaur, forcing Linda to go independent. Pallas was the first publication of Godstow Press, which she founded with her husband David in 2003.
 Linda gave up picture research with the twentieth century, her skills and experience made redundant by the advent of the new technology. At that point she began a career in creative writing, teaching American students studying at Oxford University, working primarily for Sarah Lawrence College, Stanford University and, latterly, Shimer College.

Linda's website
Read the HNS review 

HNS Indie Award 2014

HNS Indie Award Short List 2014

judged by Orna Ross

1. The Sower of the Seeds of Dreams by Bill Page

2. Blackmore’s Treasure by Derek Rogers (withdrawn, author deceased)
3. Jacobites' Apprentice by David Ebsworth
4. A Gift for the Magus by Linda Proud
5. The Prodigal Son by Anna Belfrage
6. The Bow of Heaven: Book 1: The Other Alexander by Andrew Levkoff
7. Khamsin: The Devil Wind of the Nile by Inge H. Borg
8. The Subtlest Soul by Virginia Cox
9. Samoa by J. Robert Shaffer

and the 2014 Four Finalists are:

judged by Elizabeth Chadwick

1. Jacobites' Apprentice by David Ebsworth

2. A Gift for the Magus by Linda Proud
3. The Subtlest Soul by Virginia Cox
4  Samoa by J. Robert Shaffer

full details and rules can be found here

Elizabeth Chadwick: website
Indie B.R.A.G. website

HNS Conference 2014

Details of how to submit an Indie / self-published historical novel for review can be found here 


  1. The hour has come: At least over in London. I am sure Linda (and you, too, Helen) must be sitting on pins and needles, awaiting the announcing of the Indie Award Winner.
    With best wishes, Inge.

    1. Thanks Inge - unfortunately I had no internet access at the conference, but the results are now Here... http://ofhistoryandkings.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/hns-indie-award-2014-results.html


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