While I wait for the ISBN number for my next novel, Zulu, I thought I’d add to my ongoing 11-part series on my favourite authors of historical fiction.
#5 – Sharon Kay Penman
I’ve written about Sharon Kay Penman before in one of my earliest blog posts, a lengthy book review that I will not repeat here for the sake of both brevity and originality. That said, I will repeat again what I said back in 2009: She is one of the shining lights of historical fiction today.
The particular era and area she writes about is on the Middle Ages of Great Britain and France, and her attention to detail in that time period is every bit as impressive as Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series. If she says something happened on a Wednesday, she’s looked up the date and adjusted for the Gregorian calendar reforms that dropped ten days out of the year 1582 to make that statement. I’m only exaggerating slightly when I enthuse that when her characters lean against an oak tree, she’s probably seen the stump. She’s less a writer of fiction than a journalist who apologetically plays fast and loose with her quotations because of the understandable difficulty in interviewing people who have been dead for between seven and nine centuries. The history nerd in me gets all warm and fuzzy reading her stories, knowing she will confess her few inventions in a detailed author’s note at the end.
I first came across her work with The Sunne in Splendour, an opus that seeks to undo the damage the victorious Tudor historians heaped upon the legacy of Richard the Third, last of the Plantagenets. Today even those familiar with Richard think of him first and foremost as Shakespeare’s hunch-backed monster wailing about a summer of his discontent, but Penman wanted to tell the other side of the story in a way I hope I’ve managed with Inca and my upcoming book, Zulu.
The Sunne in Splendour was her first novel, but the first 400-page type-written manuscript was lost when her car was stolen. She spent five years practicing tax law in New Jersey, something she called, “A penance” before rewriting her story again from scratch. The resulting 936-page novel was twelve years in the making. The effort involved –the staggering setback to be accepted and overcome– impresses me to no end.
Since her first novel’s publication in 1982 she has written eleven more novels focusing on Wales, Henry II, Richard I, and Eleanor of Aquitaine. If you will indulge me, I’d like to heap even further praise upon this formidable woman for her skill in making these historical figures knowable individuals, shaped by their parents and friends and circumstances into understandable, sympathetic, flawed human beings.
There’s a poem by Catullus, “I hate and I love. How could I do this, perhaps you ask? I do not know, but I feel it happening, and I am tortured.” Penman has the gift for letting you perceive what her characters cannot: The underpinnings of their feelings, laid bare for you to see as plain as day. She has the patience to build up a person from birth to death, careful always to tells us everything we know today about his friends and family in chronological order. Her plot and prose are absolutely character-driven, which is so much harder to do than it sounds.
I cannot say enough about her craft. I met a woman at a bowling alley once, and we spent a happy hour just marveling at how real those long-dead people seemed to us. Start with When Christ and His Angels Slept and see for yourself. Enjoy!