From the Notebooks of Susan Holloway Scott

Cover Girl

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

I love the cover for DUCHESS. I’ll say that up front, and with no hesitation or qualification. Like most novelists, I’ve had my share of good, bad, and horrific covers, but this one is my favorite. There isn’t another that’s even close, and my everlasting thanks go to Emily Mahon and the rest of the NAL art staff.

Of course, it’s the portrait of Sarah Churchill that makes this cover such a winner. (Here's a link to the original, now in the collection of the UK Government Art Collection.) Like most wealthy, noble people of her time, Sarah had her portrait painted a number of times during her life, from a flower-decked teenager to a middle-aged grieving mother in somber mourning for her elder son.

The painting used on the cover of DUCHESS is far from the most accomplished of her portraits –– the artist, Charles Jervais, is little more than an art history footnote today, nearly forgotten behind his more accomplished peers such as Sir Godfrey Kneller and Sir Peter Lely –– and it’s probably a flattering but not terribly accurate likeness, considering how Sarah was well into her forties when it was painted. But as a pure symbol of Sarah as Her Grace the first Duchess of Marlborough –– ah, this painting can’t be beat.

To begin with, there’s that fantastic red costume, visible clear across any bookshop. It’s not a dress; it’s a dressing gown, a loose-fitting, wrapped garment worn casually at home. Many aristocrats chose such informal attire for portraits to reinforce their elevated rank. While you, the viewer of the painting, would have had to be fully, formally dressed before you called upon a grand lady like Sarah, she, being your superior in rank and wealth, doesn’t have to bother for the lowly likes of you. She’s still wearing her undergarments, of course (even hierarchical undress has its limits) and her whalebone-stiffened stays mold her body into the fashionable, conical shape visible beneath her loosely wrapped dressing gown.

Yet though this is a casual garment, it’s still a very costly one –– and one that Sarah, the wealthiest woman in England, wants you to know she can afford with ease. The fabric is silk velvet, likely imported from Marseilles or Genoa. The brilliant scarlet is a “power” color, favored by kings, cardinals, generals, and other persons of high rank. The primary ingredient of red dyes at this time was cochineal, made from crushed Mexican beetles that the Spaniards imported at great expense. Sarah’s choice of a red dressing gown is unusual for a lady, demonstrating as it does not only her wealth, but her power at Court –– equal or superior to that of a powerful man.

Even her pose reinforces her status. True, she’s sitting on some peculiar mossy hummock that was probably a chair in the artist’s studio. But she’s been painted from slightly below, forcing the painter (and the viewer) to gaze up at her. Considering how the finished portrait would also be hung above eye level would only increase the feeling that yes, you are beneath Sarah in every possible way –– exactly where she’d wish you to be.

There’s even more to this picture to show that Sarah’s no ordinary English lady. The portraits of other seventeenth-century noblewomen emphasize their roles within the domestic sphere. They’re posed with needlework, letters, flowers, pets, and children, their hands are often clasped, with their houses often shown in the distance behind them.

But Sarah sits alone in a vague green landscape that doesn’t represent a specific place, but stands in for all the acres and acres of land –– whether at Windsor, St. Albans, or Woodstock –– that she and her husband John have acquired through hard work, intrigue, and royal favor. She stares out boldly over her shoulder, with an expression that’s so confident as to be almost arrogant. Instead of having her hands modestly folded in her lap, she has one hand touching her temple, signifying her unusual intellect, while the other is extended, palm open with a consummate courtier’s grace, towards the greater world beyond –– and, I hope, to readers everywhere.

From the Notebooks of Susan Holloway Scott

How I Discovered 1675 in 1971

Monday, July 17, 2006

One of the questions that people love to ask writers (and most writers hate to answer) is “Where do you get your ideas?” While some of us prefer the snappy smart-ass reply – “Why, I get mine at the Idea Store!” –– the truth is often so murky and roundabout that it's almost impossible to give. But sometimes the answer is so clear and precise that it could come with a date stamp.

Such is the case with my next book, DUCHESS, to be released early in August. My first foray into fictionalized biography, DUCHESS is the story of Sarah Churchill, first Duchess of Marlborough. Recently I received an email from my publicist at NAL, requesting that I answer several background questions about the book to help her generate publicity about it. The first question was, of course, a variation of the old favorite: When did you first become interested in Sarah Churchill?

And I knew at once: 1971. The very first BBC series shown in America as part of PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre was a multi-part saga set in 17th century England called “The First Churchills”, staring Susan Hampshire and John Neville (shown above in a publicity still from the time.) I was in high school, and though I was already branded a history nerd, I’d never heard of any Churchill beyond Sir Winston, and all I knew of King Charles II and his bawdy Restoration court had come via a well-thumbed copy of “Forever Amber.” But with millions of other viewers, I was instantly drawn into the lives of the beautiful, ambitious Sarah and her dashing soldier John as they contrived to rise from penniless beginnings to the very highest places in the English court and army –– the most powerful and wealthiest couple of their time. For the majority of “First Churchills” fans, the series was a fascinating way to pass Sunday night. For me, it was the germ of a novel I wouldn’t realize I’d write for another thirty-four years.

I began to think of other movies or television shows that helped shape my impressions of the past that still influence me today. I don’t mean actual research, but more the romantic sweep of history that sank so deeply into my impressionable teen-aged bones that it remains with me now.

First and foremost, of course, would be Franco Zefferelli’s 1968 version of “Romeo and Juliet.” The overture alone is enough to reduce a whole generation of long-grown women to shuddering sighs (and apparently remains popular enough that the DVD is #351 on Amazon, with nearly two hundred comments!) In those days of limited movie distribution, my friends and I skipped school and took the bus into Manhattan to the Paris movie theatre on 57th Street, the one place where it seemed always to be playing (and why, I ask you, do I still remember THAT?) and where we’d weep in the dark and savor the gorgeously romantic past of Zefferelli’s Renaissance. Leonard Whiting in dark blue velvet wasn’t so bad, either.

Victorian England had already hooked its marcasite claws into me through Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, and “Far From the Madding Crowd” in 1967 carried me off to Wessex with Julie Christie and her perfect Mod-girl straight bangs and sulky mouth. As Bathsheba Everdene, she was wooed by three heroes –– Alan Bates, Terrence Stamp, and Peter Finch –– which, when you’re struggling to achieve the notice of churlish high school boys, struck me as glorious excess. I’ve never forgotten the wide, melancholy vistas of Hardy-country, Terrence Stamp’s flopping black hair and beautiful army uniform, and Julie’s skirts billowing in the wind.

The 1970 version of D.H. Lawrence’s “Women in Love” was an eye-opener of another kind. Alan Bates again, plus Oliver Reed. Yes, Glenda Jackson won the Oscar, but all I remember was those two men eating figs in a lascivious way that simultaneously embarrassed and fascinated my adolescent self. This wasn’t “Romeo and Juliet” love; this was something else entirely from health class filmstrips, something dark and sensuous and very, very grown-up. Terence Stamp, Oliver Reed, Alan Bates –– are they the reasons that so many of the heroes I’ve written have been Englishmen with dark hair and blue eyes?

There were many more period movies that left their mark on me –– Tom Jones, Dr. Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia, Barry Lyndon –– movies that remain much more vivid in my memory than any of their newer counterparts can ever be. I don’t seem to have the patience for movies now. I see too many historical inaccuracies, inconsistencies in characters, weaknesses in plot development, all the curse of habitual self-editing. Sadly, that innocence of blissful ignorance can’t be regained, any more than I could squeeze into a pair of Landlubber or Britannia jeans from the same vintage.

I don’t buy the DVD’s of my old favorites, either. Just as it’s better not to discover that the old boyfriend is now bald and belting his Dockers south of the equator, I’d rather leave Juliet and Bathsheba in the hazy, flattering glow of the their past, and mine.

And, like Sarah Churchill, I never know how or when they’ll rise up from my memory and into my writing.

From the Notebooks of Susan Holloway Scott

A Tale of Two Dolls

Sunday, July 16, 2006

I’m writing this in Williamsburg, Virginia, where I’m visiting for week. If we’re searching for one of the ways to inspire the next generation with a love of the history and fiction and the two combined, then we should look no further than Miss Felicity Merriman. If you have a daughter/niece/granddaughter/neighbor girl or were yourself born after 1990, then likely you need no further introduction to this 18-inch historical powerhouse with green eyes, red hair, and cheerfully unceasing smile. (She's there to the left in her riding habit.)

But if you’ve somehow escaped, (or only know boys), here’s a quickie bio: Felicity Merriman was the first doll of the American Girls Collection, introduced by the Pleasant Company fifteen years ago. A “spunky, sprightly nine-year-old girl” who lived in colonial Williamsburg, Felicity is not only a doll, but the heroine of her own historical fiction series.

Personally, I find the books grimly earnest in their pursuit of both Amusement & Education, but then I’m not seven-to-eleven years old, the targeted market. And wow, does that age group love Felicity. She’s sold thousands and thousands of dolls and books, and she’s launched a good many trips to Colonial Williamsburg, too, judging by how many dolls are clutched in the sweaty grasps of little girls trudging along Duke of Gloucester Street. (CW sells the books, but not the dolls, nor their clothes or other paraphernalia). These girls experience Williamsburg not only for themselves, but through their dolls’ eyes, too, as a kind of informed historic familiar that’s propped up on the seat in hired carriage rides so she can “see” along with the rest of the family.

Felicity also paved the way for a whole clan of other historical American Girls dolls and books of the past. Others include an African American girl who escaped slavery to live in Philadelphia and a Hispanic American girl living in the 19th century southwest.

They’re a pretty cool bunch, these American Girl dolls. They’re plucky, the way Nancy Drew used to be plucky. They have great hair. They have adventures. They make good choices, and bad ones. They have friends who happen to be boys, but no boyfriends. They have mastered the art of being in the right place at the right time, too, so they always get to meet famous, important historical people, and, in Felicity’s case, be smack-dab in the middle of starting the whole American revolution.

In fact, except for having no boyfriends (which is perfectly O.K. for nine-year-olds), they’re suspiciously like a lot of my own heroines. Clearly the future readers of historical fiction could be in a lot worse hands than the dimpled plastic fingers of Felicity and her friends.

All of which made me think of another doll, one with far less responsibility and marketing savvy than Felicity. For my sixth Christmas, my grandmother sent me a small doll that I called the “Princess Doll”. She never had any other name, just the Princess Doll. Thanks to my grandmother’s love for me and her prowess with a sewing machine, the Princess Doll had a whole wardrobe of ball gowns, tiny crowns made of silver rick-rack and rhinestones and glass pearls, even a black velvet cloak trimmed with a scrap of mink.

Dressed to kill like all good royalty, the Princess Doll was put through an endless string of adventures, rescues, and near-misses. She didn’t live in any specific era, only Some Other Time that wasn’t 1960s New Jersey. The Princess Doll made daring climbs up mountainous sofas. She led breathtaking missions to pilfer cookies from the kitchen. She even rescued lesser stuffed animals from that Grendal-like monster of all monsters, the family cat. Her courage and resourcefulness were matched by her constant glamour. She was only limited by the rich outlandishness of my own imagination.

Which, come to think of it, is a lot like my heroines, too.

I think that the storytelling impulse is something we’re all born with, long before books and reading enter the picture. We all want to explain things that happen in our lives, or understand them, or escape them, and stories remain the best way anyone has discovered for doing this. Whether we whisper stories to dolls, or read them to children, or exchange them in a blog on the internet, the real power of storytelling itself never changes.