In a mere three days, I will be making a presentation about Her Brother’s Keeper at the Mid-America Medieval Association (MAMA) annual conference, at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. I still haven’t written down what I plan to say. Since I am not at all sure I’ll even have an audience, I guess in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter much. Still, I want to do a good job. So I’ll stop the swirling of ideas in my head now, and try to get a few thoughts down on “paper”.
It’s true of other eras and persons in history, I’m sure, but for me, my real kinship and understanding of French medieval times and culture (in which my novel is set) awakened when I read books by the incomparable Maurice Druon. I stumbled across the second volume in his Les Rois Maudits (The Cursed Kings) series, La Reine Etranglée (The Strangled Queen) at the Strand Bookstore in New York, and with my very imperfect comprehension of French, became enthralled with its riveting story. I ended up reading the entire series, primarily in English, though I collected each volume in French as well, and always managed to read some of the most dramatic passages in French. (Truly, there is nothing like reading books in the original languages, but for most of us, that simply isn’t going to happen. Bless the translators who give us the next best thing.)
Thanks to Maurice Druon, I have an indelible sense of Philip the Fair and the Capetian dynasty he founded in my mind; I know and feel how and why the Knights Templar met their fiery end; I understand where Edward II and Edward III of England fit into French history; and the entire period of the French Middle Ages has a vitality and richness for me that I would never have acquired without Druon’s fictional–yet authentic–representation of the persons and events of those times. It is Druon’s example which inspires me as a beginning historical fiction writer. In some measure I would like to bring to my readers an understanding of the places and times and persons that I write about in Her Brother’s Keeper, so that when they hear terms and names like Hundred Years War, Christine de Pisan, or the Valois dynasty in the future, in some other context, they will be familiar to them.
But there is something besides transmitting the authenticity of a period which also motivates me; there is the desire to shed light on persons and developments that have been overshadowed or omitted from previous historical–fictional and non-fictional–accounts. In much the same way as women and minorities in recent decades have striven for inclusiveness by means of Women’s Studies and Black Studies programs and the like, I have a tremendous desire to shine a light on Christine de Pisan, the first woman in the world to earn her living as a writer, a woman whose presence I was totally unaware of until I was 50 years old. It’s important that young people learn about inspiring groundbreakers, be they Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, or Christine de Pisan. By the same token, I would like my readers to have a taste of what literacy meant for a young girl in Europe in 1429, and how it contributed to her life and sense of self. In other words, I want to help history come alive for young readers, but also to proselytize a little.
Because of this editorializing aspect of my book, I have no illusion that it’s true literature, at least not with a capital L. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll think out loud here about other reasons I wrote this book, and how utterly disparate interests and fortuitous events led to its birth.