Tasha Alexander

Two new books, one fiction and one nonfiction, offer insight into Britain’s Queen Victoria, who reigned during a time of radical change. 

British writer Daisy Goodwin’s novel Victoria is a delicious introduction to the young monarch’s world. Meant as a companion to the PBS series of the same name, which will air in the U.S. in January, it tells the story of Victoria’s personal and political struggles after her ascension to the throne. Goodwin’s engaging style is immediately captivating, and she deftly brings fresh life to a story familiar to many. 

All historical fiction takes liberties, but Goodwin stays true to the basic facts while imaginatively filling in gaps in the record. Her queen is strong-willed and impetuous: a classic teenager, but one with a great deal more power than her counterparts. She frees herself from the control of her mother and Sir John Conroy, bonds with her first Prime Minister and navigates the difficult world between adolescence and adulthood. Goodwin makes us care about Victoria the girl, even when she behaves badly, because she breathes humanity into her. 

One notable aspect of Goodwin’s account is her depiction of Victoria falling in love with Prime Minister Lord Melbourne. Readers who wonder if Goodwin is taking liberties here can turn to Julia Baird’s impressive biography Victoria: The Queen for answers—Baird confirms that the Queen had quite a crush on her Prime Minister. While many biographies can be a slog to read, Baird’s is a delight. She uses her sources well while employing a narrative style that is a joy to read; all history should be this well-written.  

Victoria was a complex woman, and Baird presents the queen in all her contradictions. We cringe at her notorious tantrums and cheer when she manages to outmaneuver more experienced ministers. Baird reminds us that some commonly accepted truths about Victoria don’t hold up under scrutiny. For example, Baird argues against the idea that after Albert’s death, Victoria all but abandoned her responsibilities. While her devotion to mourning and excessive displays of grief are well-known, Victoria did not completely remove herself from the business of running the Empire.

Much of the difficulty in painting a full picture of the Queen comes from the destruction of many of her letters and diaries, done on Victoria’s orders. Later, the male editors of her correspondence excluded much they deemed unfeminine or inappropriate. Baird does a thorough job of synthesizing the primary sources that do exist, and even manages to dig up new information on the queen’s controversial relationship with her Highland servant, John Brown. A woman of her time, Victoria did not fight for women’s rights and was opposed to women’s suffrage. She was often more interested in intervening in individual situations than pushing for sweeping reforms, yet Baird skillfully avoids judging Victoria by modern standards.

Goodwin and Baird have given us two books that complement each other beautifully, offering readers the chance to learn more about one of Britain’s most famous queens. 

Novelist Tasha Alexander is the author of the bestselling Lady Emily series, set in the Victorian era.

 

This article was originally published in the December 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Two new books, one fiction and one nonfiction, offer insight into Britain’s Queen Victoria, who reigned during a time of radical change.

Since the publication of his first novel, Prague, Arthur Phillips has firmly established himself as one of contemporary America’s most original writers, dazzling readers with wit, a keen sense of humanity and an exuberant style that is simply a delight to read. Part pseudo-memoir, part Elizabethan drama, The Tragedy of Arthur tells the story of “Arthur Phillips,” a novelist whose con artist father has discovered a lost work of Shakespeare. The book is divided into two sections: first, the fictional Phillips’ introduction to the play, then the play itself, replete with scholarly (and not) footnotes. In the end, it’s for the reader to decide what’s truth and what’s fiction in this smart and insightful novel.  

What brought you to this story? Did something in particular spark when you were contemplating what to write next?
This book has been bubbling up demanding attention for quite a while. The most disciplined thing I ever did was to keep putting this one off without losing that rush of ideas until it was the right time. The first seed was just the fun thought of the challenge: "I wonder if I could write a halfway convincing one of those plays.” Then—you know how this goes, Tasha—once you have that first magnetic idea, stuff starts to stick to it. Someone says something—oh, I could use that. You read something apparently unrelated—oh, I could use that. You start to daydream about the project—oh, I could use that . . . and with Shakespeare, things happen all the time. Notes started flurrying all the time.

What did you write first: the intro or the play?
Do I have to admit I wrote the play? Oh well, there goes that fun. Okay. . . . They were almost simultaneous, in that I wrote a rough draft of the play and then wrote a rough draft of what became the introduction, and back and forth in that order, always starting with the play on each revision. That said, the note-taking and planning for the introduction had gone on for quite a while before writing the play, and THAT said, the research for the play went on for quite a while before I started sifting through ideas of how the introduction might work. This is very convoluted. Isn't it all just easier if I claim I didn't write the play?

This is an ambitious project, but executed with a mastery that makes reading it a breeze. Ambitious often equals inaccessible. Did it pour out à la Mozart (minus the debauched lifestyle funded through the sale of snuff boxes) after you'd worked it out in your head? Did you meticulously outline and plan every detail? Something in between or different altogether?
This was very different than previous work. It was much more planned. Much more research ahead of time, in an organized and scheduled sort of fashion. The play was very much outlined, as it had to be, because the nature of the project was to try to imagine HIM. To imagine Shakespeare’s methods, his sources, his moments of allowing imagination to displace research, and then to try to follow those steps (all imagined, I admit). So the outline of the play came out of the sources for the story Shakespeare would have had available to him, and also the general formatting of acts and scenes that he tended to fall into. Not a formula (much too strong and loaded a word) but patterns of storytelling, moments of revelation, action and so forth. All of which varied over his career, of course.

Tell me about the play. How the hell did you pull that off? In college we used to speak in faux (and extremely bad) Shakespearean dialogue, but I don't think I could keep it up for an entire day, let alone an entire play. (Love the footnotes, by the way.)
The footnotes were so fun. The one about hemorrhoid paste in Elizabethan England made me happy for days. The process of the play research was only enjoyable. First off, I read the canon, in one of the suggested possible chronological orders, and I read it out loud. This looked a little odd at my local cafe, but that was all right. That was the first step, it took a few months, and it was a sheer joy.

The experience of reading Shakespeare is worlds away from seeing his plays staged. Would you like to see this "new discovery" produced?
A few companies around the country are planning readings and I'm very closely involved with one we're doing here in New York in May at the Public Theater. But yes, I would like to see a full production, of the play alone or of some sort of mix of Introduction and Play as a theatrical event. I'd like to see it not only for what I know of what I wrote, but of what new revelations and surprises a great director and great actors can bring to something you think you know.

Did you find yourself growing sympathetic to the anti-Stratfordians [a group that believes Shakespeare is not the author of the works attributed to him] when you were writing the play?
Oh, dear. You really don't want to get me started about this. The short answer is no: the more work I did writing a Shakespeare play, the less sympathy I had for those who said someone other than Shakespeare wrote them.

I have spent a lot of time looking at anti-Stratfordian thinking and writing and arguments and theories, and I have spent much too much time discussing it with them. While I feel a great deal of sympathy for people who passionately believe in something that most people disagree with, I very strongly disagree with them. I think it requires a view of history, people and most of all creative writing that I find unrealistic and a little silly. And—as a writer who prides himself on making things up and knows how to do it—a little offensive. I may have identified with Shakespeare a hair too much here, but there it is. And, please, anti-Strats, don't bother writing in about why I'm wrong. I've heard it all by now, I'd say.

Talk to me about truth and fiction and memoirs. Memoirs are so frequently fictionalized, it would seem more honest to call many of them novels. Or to go with Hollywood, "Based on a True Story." The Tragedy of Arthur is a novel, but do you think some readers will take the memoir at face value despite the fact that it's fiction with bits of reality?
I hope that a careful reader will think about what happens in this book and ask themselves, "What do I really know about any author that puts text in front of me, now or from four centuries ago?" [Just] let the author go and love the texts, draw whatever truth or lessons or "mere" entertainment they can, and really know and believe that that is enough.

Do you have a favorite line from Shakespeare? A favorite play?
King Johnis such a good and underperformed play, but every time you see a good production of any of his (or any good playwright's) work, it's a revelation. I just saw such a brilliant Taming of the Shrew put on here in NYC by the Guerrilla Shakespeare Project, and I went back the next weekend to see it again. And that's a play I don't like (or didn't think I liked) when I read it.

 

Tasha Alexander is the author of the Lady Emily series, set in Victorian England. She lives in Chicago with her husband, the thriller writer Andrew Grant.

Since the publication of his first novel, Prague, Arthur Phillips has firmly established himself as one of contemporary America’s most original writers, dazzling readers with wit, a keen sense of humanity and an exuberant style that is simply a delight to read. Part pseudo-memoir, part Elizabethan drama, The Tragedy of Arthur tells the story of […]

Amelia Peabody is back, but this time she’s not returning to Egypt, her usual stomping ground. The 19th installment in this immensely popular series finds Elizabeth Peters’ iconoclast detective in Palestine, where she’s gone with her husband, the famous (and devastatingly handsome) Egyptologist, Radcliffe Emerson, to stop a careless adventurer from wrecking archaeological havoc while searching for the Ark of the Covenant. That would be enough to motivate Amelia to save the day—but there’s concern within the British government that Morley is not just archaeologically inept, but also a German spy.

Amelia’s son, Ramses, is already in Palestine, working on a dig. Before his family can reach him, he’s taken prisoner, caught in the middle of a nefarious scheme involving forgery and international intrigue.

What follows is all those things readers love about Peters’ novels: perfectly paced suspense, biting wit and fascinating tidbits about ancient cultures. It’s a pleasure to dip back into the Emersons’ lives. Instead of continuing their story after World War I, Peters has chosen to cover some more of their “lost years,” this time taking us back to 1910, and it’s a delight to once again see Amelia and Emerson at the peak of their physical prowess (yes, Amelia has prowess), and to see Ramses and his friend (more like a brother), David, honing the skills that will serve them so well in the future.

Peters is well established as a master when it comes to character development, and she takes full opportunity to further flesh out our old friends in this book. Emerson has always viewed religion with more than casual skepticism, and putting him in the Holy Land is a treat for readers. He and Amelia spar about theology in the way only they can—acerbic and humorous all at once. The dialogue between the two is a consistent highlight throughout the series.

Best of all, Peters, with a PhD in Egyptology from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, can always be relied on to present readers with an accurate, well-researched view of the historical periods in which she sets her books. She gets every detail right, from archaeological techniques to cultural mores. A River in the Sky is a charming, entertaining read, full of all the good things we expect from Amelia Peabody. Including her infamous steel-tipped parasol.

Tasha Alexander is the author of the Lady Emily Ashton series. She lives in Chicago, unfortunately without a parasol of any sort.

Amelia Peabody is back, but this time she’s not returning to Egypt, her usual stomping ground. The 19th installment in this immensely popular series finds Elizabeth Peters’ iconoclast detective in Palestine, where she’s gone with her husband, the famous (and devastatingly handsome) Egyptologist, Radcliffe Emerson, to stop a careless adventurer from wrecking archaeological havoc while […]

We all have preconceived notions. It’s unavoidable. One of the most exciting things about doing book research is discovering all the ways in which our assumptions about people, places, and history are wrong. In the course of writing five novels (almost six; I’m just about done!), I’ve been forced again and again to revise my opinions about our Victorian counterparts.

 But of all the books I’ve written, none has surprised me as much as Tears of Pearl. I’d decided to send Emily and Colin to Constantinople for their honeymoon—partly because I loved the exotic nature of the city and partly because I liked the idea of Emily, who struggles with the limits English society placed on women in the 19th century, in a society where the so-called weaker sex were even more repressed.

Sounds great, right? I thought so. But after I’d read letters and memoirs from women of the period, I realized the Ottoman ladies had a great deal more freedom and upward mobility than the average Englishwoman of the time. Their veils, which I’d ignorantly viewed as repressive, actually gave them quite a bit of freedom—they enabled them to move about the city freely without anyone knowing who they were. Meeting a lover in a café? No problem. The veil keeps you anonymous.

Last year, while working on the book, I visited Istanbul (because, as we all know, you can’t go back to Constantinople…).  And for all that we like to think of our contemporary selves as modern and enlightened, many people did not react well to the idea of my trip. They didn’t think it was safe for a woman to travel alone to Turkey—surely it would be too dangerous. Now, of course it’s essential to be careful any time you’re traveling. But I can honestly say that I’ve never felt safer in a city than Istanbul. If anything, men were more respectful of a solitary woman than they are in New York or Chicago.

My first morning in the city, I met three wonderful American women at breakfast in my hotel. (You won’t find a more glorious breakfast spread anywhere than that set out at the Hotel Empress Zoe every morning.) They were going the hamam—the Turkish baths—that evening and invited me to join them. The hamam was high on my list for must-sees in the city. I’d read all kinds of fabulous descriptions of them in letters written by Victorian English women travelers. As a junkie of all things spa-related, I loved the idea of being massaged and scrubbed. But I must confess to having felt a little nervous about the whole thing.

 

 

First, because I wasn’t exactly sure what the process would be like. Second was the whole issue of sitting around naked in a room full of total strangers.

Going with my new found friends alleviated the first problem. Because if we all did everything wrong, at least we would all be wrong together, which is somehow less daunting than being wrong alone.

As for the second point, there was simply no avoiding it. And it struck me, as  I walked into the more than 300-year-old Ca?alo?lu Hamam, that countless Victorian women travelers (Florence Nightingale included) had preceded me. And surely if they—whom we all assume to have been much more modest than the Modern American Girl—could do it, I could.

Which sounds fabulous until you’ve emerged from your beautiful wooden dressing room stark naked only to have your bath attendant hand you a tiny piece of cotton to use as a towel. This and a pair of wooden clogs are all you can take into the haratet, or hot room. We did our best to cover ourselves up and shuffled over marble floors into an enormous domed room lined with washbasins. Here you’re instructed to sit and handed a silver bowel. This you dip into the nearest basin, fill with hot water, and dump over your head. Repeat over and over and over.

Obviously at this point, you have to abandon the towel. Somewhat terrifying at first. But all the women in the hamam do it—and you find that it’s actually not so bad. And before you know it, you’re relaxed, your muscles loose as you lean against the marble bench dousing yourself with water and falling into easy conversation with the people around you. By the time your attendant comes back to lead you to the marble platform in the center of the room, where she’ll massage and scrub you, you could care less what you’re wearing. The entire ritual was amazing, and by the time I emerged, my skin softer than a baby’s, I knew that if I could, I’d hamam every single day.

It was an ethereal experience in an exquisite building. Those Victorian women travelers knew a good thing when they saw it. As much as I loved Istanbul—cruising the Bosphorus to the Black Sea, combing through the treasures of Topkap? Palace, haggling in the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar—the hamam will always be high on the list of my favorite experiences. I loved it so much I went back two more times during my trip. Research, you see, needs to be well and thoroughly done…

 

Tasha Alexander is finishing up her fifth novel starring Lady Emily, who heads to Turkey in Alexander's new release Tears of Pearl.

 

We all have preconceived notions. It’s unavoidable. One of the most exciting things about doing book research is discovering all the ways in which our assumptions about people, places, and history are wrong. In the course of writing five novels (almost six; I’m just about done!), I’ve been forced again and again to revise my […]

Crime fiction fans everywhere were delighted last year when Tom Rob Smith’s first thriller, Child 44, made the long-list for the Man Booker Prize. His follow-up, The Secret Speech, is a sequel to his acclaimed debut, continuing the adventures of Leo Demidov. Khrushchev has come to power, and he makes a speech—in theory, a secret speech—that reveals the corruption and horror of Stalin’s brutal reign and leads to the release of scores of prisoners from the country’s gulags.

Demidov had worked as a State Security agent and does not have a spotless past, but he’s moved on, taking a post running a homicide unit and trying to be a decent man. He loves his wife, is devoted to the daughters he adopted (after sending their parents to their deaths) and wants an ordinary life. But escaping from what he’s done isn’t so easy, especially once he’s in the sights of people whose families suffered under Stalin.

Fraera, the leader of a vicious gang, has demanded the release of her husband, a priest who was put in prison by Demidov, but it’s clear her mission is also to cause Demidov deep psychological suffering. She’s fixated on revenge. When she kidnaps one of Demidov’s daughters, the desperate father sets off on a breathtaking race to save the girl, moving from Moscow to Siberia to Budapest, facing the demons of his past at every turn.

Smith writes action relentlessly and fills The Secret Speech with vibrant descriptions of the post-Stalin Soviet Union without once letting his breakneck pace slip. The brutal violence and drab mood paint a realistic picture of a bleak era. Smith also continues to develop his wonderfully complex protagonist and torments him like few other authors could, making the reader worry about him on every page. Demidov has to face his past guilt head-on, a particularly difficult task when he goes into the prisons where those he’s arrested have spent years in agony.

Meticulously plotted and deliciously complicated, Smith’s sophomore effort doesn’t disappoint.

Tasha Alexander is the author of A Fatal Waltz. She lives in Chicago.

 

Crime fiction fans everywhere were delighted last year when Tom Rob Smith’s first thriller, Child 44, made the long-list for the Man Booker Prize. His follow-up, The Secret Speech, is a sequel to his acclaimed debut, continuing the adventures of Leo Demidov. Khrushchev has come to power, and he makes a speech—in theory, a secret […]

To say that Arthur Phillips is a versatile novelist is understatement at its worst. Equally capable of penning contemporary and historical novels, gracefully moving from subject to subject, he’s the sort of author in whom readers can fearlessly place their faith. After dazzling us with last year’s Victorian Angelica, he’s back in modern times with his fourth book, The Song Is You.

Set in New York, the story follows Julian Donahue as he navigates the shadowy, grief-filled world of a parent who has lost a child. A director—not of films, but television commercials—Julian did not take well to the role of husband until he became a father. Following the death of his two-year-old son, he manages to hack out a bleak existence, burying himself in music, while his estranged wife, Rachel, spirals through mourning. She longs to save the marriage; Julian wants to move on—a goal made easier after dropping into a Brooklyn club to use the restroom and staying to hear a raw performance from Irish singer Cait O’Dwyer. He’s consumed by her, but rather than introducing himself as another disposable fan, he becomes a faraway mentor and muse, setting himself on a course that will lead him from New York to Europe as Cait’s career begins to skyrocket. The relationship itself is fascinating, as Julian and Cait circle each other, gradually coming closer together.

In The Song Is You, Phillips has crafted some of the most memorable and affecting secondary characters in fiction, from Julian’s one-legged father who was obsessed with Billie Holiday, to the protagonist’s brother, Aidan, a trivia genius whose eccentric existence has been irrevocably damaged by an offensively wrong answer that he gave during a “Jeopardy!” appearance.

Here, Phillips has achieved what only the best novelists can—he’s written a book where the beauty of the prose is matched by the depth of characterization and the fluid movement of the plot. The Song Is You is complex and rhapsodic, heart-wrenching and satisfying, an absolute pleasure to read.

Tasha Alexander is the author of A Fatal Waltz.

To say that Arthur Phillips is a versatile novelist is understatement at its worst. Equally capable of penning contemporary and historical novels, gracefully moving from subject to subject, he’s the sort of author in whom readers can fearlessly place their faith. After dazzling us with last year’s Victorian Angelica, he’s back in modern times with […]

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