Please note … Saturday, May 10 2008 

This blog has moved to a new “Baroque Explorations” site:

I hope to see you there.


Elizabeth, the movie Tuesday, Apr 1 2008 

We went to see Elizabeth last night, and we are glad we did. We may even buy the DVD, to have it at home to watch again. The costuming was spectacular, Cate Blanchett brilliant, the settings and photography fantastic. The script was rarely banal and had some nice subtle touches. But…

But as a researcher into history I had quibbles, the greatest being the portrayal of the Protestants as embracers of individualism and light, and Catholics as in the Dark Ages. They had to delineate the good and the bad in true Hollywood fashion, and the movie is, after all, the story of the war of Catholic Spain against Protestant England, and of course Protestant Elizabeth is the movie’s heroine. But my personal impression is that the Protestants were the extremists: no dancing, no festivals, even the celebration of Christmas was outlawed for a time. No frivolity whatsoever. Clothing had to be sober, and in dark colours. Everything so serious. In a Protestant church, the women sat separate from the men and the ministers preached covered.

So that’s my main quibble, making Catholics out to be so terribly cult-like and evil. Another is that the men and women were so often alone: this would have been highly unlikely. The scene of Elizabeth and Sir Walter sitting on the floor together drinking wine was hard to believe. I think proprieties would have been observed. Also, was it true that the men picked the women up from the crotch in dancing? Minor things: no bonnet at bedtime. Men jumping overboard to save their lives: surely they would have been jumping to a certain death. Etc. etc. etc.

But other than that, a wonderful movie — a wonderful Hollywood movie.

Excellent videos on Versailles Friday, Mar 28 2008 

The website for Versailles now offers excellent short videos on-line — called podcasts — in both English and French.

More on (historical) fact and fiction Tuesday, Mar 25 2008 

I really liked this blog post: Fiction Versus History: Which is most truthful?
To quote: 
What turns me off from traditional historical writing is the distance from which the story is told. When I pick up a book on a historical figure, I want that book to take me into the head space and emotional state of the person I’m reading about. Unfortunately most history books are unable to do that. They are told from the view point of the observer or researcher. And despite the historian’s best efforts to give the protagonist a personality, it always seems to fall short of what the real person must’ve been. 
My alternative to history books has become historical fiction. They provide the depth and complexity of character that I crave as a reader and the historical background that I appreciate learning about.  
Discovering the past is my main motivation for writing historical fiction. Research sparks me, but it’s only through delving deeply into the day-to-day lives of my characters that I even begin to understand.

The fuzzy line between fact and fiction Wednesday, Mar 12 2008 

It disturbs me that “fiction” is getting such a bad rap in the U.S. press, that publishers feel they can’t market a novel, but that a “true” story is okay, that readers hunger for “truth” and will pay for it.

Since when has memoir been held to documentary standards? Memoir is a story created from life. I write historical fiction, and in delving into the research, I’ve come to see quite clearly that historians write fiction, as well. The line between fact and fiction is fuzzy, always, and I don’t understand this urge to nail it down. Facts can be misleading, and fiction can be revealing.

Story is how we explain the past—our history—to ourselves. Story is a powerful tool, and it is story that sets us apart from the world of animals (at least insofar as we know!).

Yet I’m guilty myself, I know. I love that “wow” moment when reading historical texts, thinking: Imagine—this actually happened. I think the issue is not whether something is true or false, but the understanding, the contract that is created between the author and reader. The outrage is: “We have been misled.” Frey’s memoir was more fiction than fact, but was marketed as fact. Even so, I have trouble understanding the furor.

One of my first historical reveries was brought on by a diary I read of a Quaker young woman in 18th century England. I was swept away by this “true” account. On my next trip to London, I researched her life; it was there that I learned that the diary was fiction, a novel. I felt disillusioned, let down, but then thought: “What a good novel.” For it drew me into the world of the past in a very real way—and that’s what fiction can do that fact cannot.

The beauty of ancient texts Wednesday, Feb 27 2008 

This blog, BibliOdyssey, is a wonderful compendium of visuals from old texts. Delicious browsing. 

Ancient libraries on-line Tuesday, Dec 25 2007 

Renaissance Magazine has an interesting article in the December, 2007 (#58) issue on how ancient books are being digitized for on-line libraries. Normally books are scanned, but the photo-like images take up lots of file space. If converted to text, the files are smaller. An additional advantage, for the researcher, is that they can then be searched.

However, converting old books to text is challenging because of the irregularity of the printing. An interesting solution makes use of the garbled letters test given to an estimated 60 million internet users a day. By incorporating snippets of a scanned book into the tests—and feeding the “translations” back to the digital library—a digital text version of the book is created.

Things I didn’t know Wednesday, Dec 12 2007 

The visiting card was introduced to Europe in the 17th century during the reign of Louis XIV who was known as the Sun King. In the same century the practice began to take hold in English society. At around the same time, the card moved from its social beginnings to a business purpose with the introduction of the trade card.