A Gift for the Magus

I’ve been haunting your blog, searching for when the new book would be ready,  accidentally went to your Facebook page and discovered it has been available since last May!

Now here’s a funny thing. I run this blog on writing historical fiction and omit to mention I have had a new novel published. I hate self-promo, but still, you have to do it, at least to the level of information. Perhaps I get so many facebook messages from people drooling over their own work that I’ve gone into reverse. Anyway, THANK YOU, Jeanine in Canada (quoted above) for pointing out the omission.

I get postnatal depression once a book is out. It’s such a deadening experience. First the boxes arrive and you dare not look inside because you’re scared of what you’ll find.

Then I dare not open it, for fear of finding mistakes. I didn’t open it for months. Meanwhile, readers began reporting back, and no one mentioned mistakes. In the last couple of weeks, however, I’ve been working on the eBook edition which required reading the text in digital form and… I found mistakes. So many in the first couple of pages that I went to bed sick, but later I found that, while they were in the final typescript, they had not appeared in the book. Some remain, however. No prizes will be awarded for finding them. Forget I even mentioned it.

I didn’t want a launch party because I’m just plain dorky when it comes to social events, but Jan McGiffen, an American novelist I met on a foraging walk, persuaded me I should, and so it came to pass, and the Lord blessed it. A lovely occasion for family, friends, neighbours and fellow allotmenteers. I still resist the ‘proper launch’ in London which others are pushing for.

Apart from making announcements on Facebook, informing everyone on the ‘Friends of Godstow Press’ list, and doing some desultory work in sending out review copies, mostly I’m straining at the leash to get on with my next book. No, not my next book. It’s been upgraded to my latest book. Bless it. I wish it well, embryonic as it is at the moment.

The other thing I hate about new publications is receiving feedback. I live in dread through those first silent weeks. The silence, after all, could remain permanent. But then the murmuring began, the emails, the phone calls, the hand-written letters, a review on the internet which made me cry (the Idle Woman).

I’ve just finished reading your tribute to Filippo Lippi and I think it’s masterly. The whole Quartet is just so breathtakingly accomplished that I hesitate to say it, but I think that ‘A Gift for the Magus’ may be the best novel of the sequence – so profoundly humane, such a convincing study of the visionary and disreputable, indolent and pragmatic, mercurially ambivalent nature of the artist’s soul in its life long approach/avoidance struggle with the work. (Lindsay Clarke, letter, 13th August 2012).

Later in his letter, Lindsay complains, ‘ You are such a fine writer it infuriates me that your work is not more widely known.’ The Idle Woman said much the same, that it ‘beggars belief’. I read these two things on the same day. On the next day, I got a phone call about a conversation held in Lewes High Street between two readers, wondering ‘Why isn’t she famous?’

Now that sort of thing can make you curl up in embarrassment, or throw your arms wide to the sky. For me, it set off a four-day contemplation on fame, and the eventual answer is ‘because I don’t want to be.’ There is no half way house. Today I heard from Prof. Judith Testa, whose own book, An Art Lover’s Guide to Florence, is out next month, that she doesn’t want fame, either, but would like greater recognition (which would be very well deserved). That’s the half way house which doesn’t exist in our celebrity culture.

If you want to be famous, you have to work for it, play the game for all its worth, as well, of course, as writing a damn fine book. Go to the parties, speak to the right people, praise and flatter, make no waves. I really don’t think self promo will get you there. A friend of mine, now stellar, was once a struggling author like the rest of us, but he never said no to any gig, be it ever so humble, like going a couple of hundred miles north on a winter’s night to speak to three people in a library, two of whom were the librarians. He never got awkward with anyone, never sneered at a Literary Festival’s refusal to pay its speakers a fee, always wrote the review or the puff asked of him. He also wrote three damn fine books, but they alone would not have guaranteed him fame. What happened was that he said yes to the Universe, and the Universe said yes back.

I did everything wrong. I embarrassed the CEO of Transworld at a literary party. I refused to speak to agents because they were too thin. I would not go to literary festivals which paid no fee. Etc. etc. And here I am. And you know what? I can’t think of any better place to be.

My book is out – thank you, Jeanine, for reminding me – people are loving it and they are taking the trouble to tell me. I would not want the BBC phoning me to appear on some art show to give my opinion (God forbid!); I’ve done the literary festivals (no fee) and am in no hurry to do another; I really don’t want people queuing at a book signing and then getting tongue-tied. Cor blimey!

A friend said recently that it’s important once in a while to take a day off to be ordinary. I’m still laughing. Perhaps I should take a day off to be extraordinary and have that London launch. But really I’d rather be digging spuds on the allotment amongst those who, like family, couldn’t give a damn what you’ve done. It’s the size of your marrows that counts.

So, if anyone’s interested, A Gift for the Magus is officially published on September 21st, but pre-publication copies are available direct from Godstow Press at a special discount price.

Error-free electronic copies will also be available as of September 21st.

And apologies to anyone who’s reading this via Facebook and thinking, ‘Cor, she’s over-egging the self-promo.’ Because I have been active there, if not here. All to be rectified shortly, with a few more posts.


Juliana Hill Cotton

In the early days of my research into the character of Angelo Poliziano (1454-1494) I came upon the work of a scholar called Juliana Hill Cotton. In particular her paper Death and Politian, published by Durham University in 1954, was so dense with useful information that, having underlined everything I needed, I found it would have been quicker to underline the three or four sentences of no interest. What I have is a photocopy neatly underscored throughout in blue ink, a striking document I refuse to be parted with, no matter that I have a husband with a whizz-bang new scanner and a desire for a paperless future.

It is lofty in tone and full of phrases which imply much without actually saying anything concrete. You can’t get to the end of this paper without believing that Poliziano was murdered, one of several unexplained deaths in the same year that Juliana was the first to notice. In Appendix IV she tabulates all the ‘murders’ of 1494, and it’s quite a celeb list. Read Hill Cotton, you believe in murder, and you get to think that the prime suspect is Piero de’ Medici, but she never ever states this explicitly. Read Hill Cotton and you become fastidious in reading footnotes, trying to find out how she’s got this stuff into your brain without committing herself. She is the mistress of suggestion.

Was Angelo Poliziano murdered by his pupil, Piero? Find out in 'The Rebirth of Venus'!

I was young; I was ill-educated; I was in awe of all scholars but JHC was at the top of the pile. Over my years of research I met many scholars and all turned out to be helpful, kind, sympathetic, even a bit jealous that I was writing a novel. (It seems everyone wants to write a novel, really.) Anthony Grafton, F W Kent, everyone involved with the great Ficino project at the School of Economic Science, and Albinia de la Mare, Keeper of Western Manuscripts at the Bodleian Library, all looked benevolently on this oik who was writing fiction and did their best to help.

I got to know Albinia (Tilly) quite well and each time I was in Oxford (I lived in London at the time) I took her to tea at the Nosebag. I asked her once about the mysterious Juliana Hill Cotton who was apparently writing a thesis on Poliziano. Tilly promised to let me know if she heard anything about her.

One day I got a call — get to the Duke Humphrey Library tomorrow, Juliana will be there.

I arrived at the Bod the next day and Tilly introduced me to an elderly woman with long grey hair done up in a bun, every inch as formidable as I had expected. Here was the scholar I had always feared to meet, the one who would fulfil my forebodings.

She was nice enough at the start. We went to the King’s Head for a cup of coffee and must have talked affably although I have no recollection of the conversation. Undoubtedly it would have been about Poliziano, to whom she was as violently attached as I was, even if she did say spiteful things about his character. I do remember her saying, as we walked back to the Bod, that I should drop all this academic stuff and get married and have a life.

She had her thesis with her; I asked if I could look at it. I was duly deposited in the Upper Reading Room and there, in studious hush, I was given five minutes. Five minutes!

Of course, this work was like her paper only with knobs on. If I’d have had blue ink and a ruler… but no, I limited myself to making a note in my notebook. Suddenly there was a screech and she was flying at me like a banshee. From behind some stack close-by, she had been watching to see if I lived up to her worst fears, and I did. I was plagiarizing her work! Stealing it! What happened next was a full-blown row in the Bodleian Library which took the Keeper of Western Manuscripts to calm down.

‘Don’t worry!’ Tilly whispered to me as we were pulled apart, all flailing arms and loosening hair, ‘she’s not going to be with us long and her papers will come to us when she goes.’

I gave it about 20 years before I dropped in at the Duke Humphrey to ask. They remembered Tilly de la Mare, of course, but had no recollection of Juliana or any record of a deposit of her thesis. I toyed with the idea of finding her thesis  and completing it and publishing it (under her name, needless to say) because, without doubt, it will be the best, most detailed work about Poliziano ever. Pamela Tudor Craig and Carol Kidwell both put me off that idea, telling me to get a life (I’d already got married by that stage).

So all went dormant until recently when one of our esteemed Commentators on this blog, Judith Testa, became interested in the story and I promised to make some enquiries.

I went to the Bod this week to get a new reader’s pass. There have been many changes in that ancient building, including the installation of a lift for which I am mighty thankful, because each time I go enquiring about Juliana, it’s the same process, only the length of time in between visits is such that I forget the protocol. So you swipe yourself into the library with your card, and walk up the many flights of stairs to the Duke, stairs made for little medieval legs that are quite tiring for modern ones, and when you get there they say, ‘You can’t bring your bag in,’ so you go back down to deposit it, then make your way up again. Then they tell you to swipe yourself in, with the card which is in your bag downstairs. I tell you, I’m not the only person gasping and wheezing on those stairs. So now there is a swanky lift and I didn’t think twice about using it when I had to go back down for the card.

Safely entered, I spoke to a lady on the desk and explained my quest. A lot of the pomposity has gone from the Bod — Debbie said she’d make enquiries and would email me. Which she did, the following day. She wanted to know if I knew when Juliana died.

I started googling. Half an hour later, this person emerged from the ether, a Juliana I did not know and would never have known, who lived locally and not remotely, who had a dear, sweet husband who established the Sudan Archive at the University of Durham. In his retirement, Richard worked with her on her researches. According to his obituary in the Independent, ‘They made a touching pair, working together at the Bodleian, she sitting beside him after she could no longer work.’

I feel sick that we lived in the same city and I did not know, did not become her friend. There’s no mending that now, but at least I’ll pursue my enquiries to the end this time. Next stop, probate office, to find out who got the papers. I find it improbably that Richard did not deposit them somewhere safe, and where would be safer than the Bod?

Or did someone tell him pompously that they would not accept unfinished theses? I shall find out.

Meanwhile on a US forum for Italian Studies, it seems that the papers of JHC are sought-after, given the difficulty in locating them, especially the appendices. I have almost the full set, so if anyone needs them for serious research, get in touch. I’ll be putting a full bibliography up on my website, lindaproud.com (under Notes).

Of the trilogy, it is in The Rebirth of Venus that I am most indebted to the work of Juliana Hill Cotton. As a novelist, I don’t have to suggest anything, I can state my ideas explicitly, but I felt very nervous of accusing an historical figure of murder, even in fiction. When I found the real murderer, however, such sensibilities went out of the window. All I’ll say here is that it wasn’t Piero de’ Medici.

The Children of Lorenzo de’ Medici

I’ve often wanted but never dared to make a case for historical fiction being more dependable than modern history books. Once the fiction writer is steeped in her research material, she has to make it add up in what Hilary Mantel calls ‘author’s arithmetic’: the facts have to be coherent. In the matter of the Medici children, I’d often been confounded by the history books but by tracking my way using the letters of the time, mostly Poliziano’s, and drawing up chronologies of events, it finally all fell into place with that lovely sense of a jigsaw puzzle solved which I tend, perhaps erroneously, to equate with the truth.

That period between Christmas and New Year is a natural for decluttering and in amongst my listless efforts a box of antiquated computer discs was examined critically before being put back where I found it; likewise all my files, occupying precious shelf space. Should they go into store? Is it time to part from them? I think my Renaissance research is finished, its results dead and dust-gathering, but you never know, you never know, and the files remain on their shelves.

Then at the end of December a comment appeared on the ‘Books’ page of this blog from Judith Testa, an art historian in the States, asking for what information I might have about the birth dates of the children of Lorenzo de’ Medici because she couldn’t find anything but muddle in the history books.

I’d found the same when researching the subject and, with Judith, am surprised, very surprised, that there appears to be no official record of the offspring of a very famous man, some of whom were destined at birth to be famous themselves. As Judith said in our continuing correspondence over the past few days, we know the correct dates for Michelangelo and Raphael, whose future glory was not exactly obvious at their birth, so why not the Medici children? Presumably the records were kept by the Medici themselves and were lost in 1494, at the time the family was sent ignominiously into exile and  its libraries dispersed.

Although I keep a bibliographic record of research and give my notes code numbers so I can track their source, I’m not meticulous about it, and then my note-taking is particular to my story and not to the subject; that is to say, I don’t take notes about absolutely everything, only what’s relevant.

Worried now that I might have got my facts wrong, Judith’s enquiry sent me burrowing into my computer where I was forced to confront what I’d dimly realised before, that there’s stuff missing, early notes, early drafts. For some novels all I have is a pdf of the final typeset. I presumed stuff had been lost in crashes suffered over the years, but Judith pointed out that in fact it’s because of advances in technology. So one of the many resolutions for the New Year, and one I mean to do today, is to send off all those floppies and zip discs I’d found in a box to a conversion service and get everything on to CD.

Anyway, after much toing and froing between us, we assembled what we’d gathered over the years related to the birth dates, the actual number of children when modern historians obviously can’t count above the fingers on one hand, and most importantly, establishing which child was the last born and when (given that we’re often led to believe it was about five months after the previous one).

We’d got our bits and pieces into agreement by January 1st, then yesterday a slightly embarrassed message came through from Judith saying she’d thought to consult Ask.com. The answer given was full and very detailed and satisfies me even though there is no citation made for sources.

So, with grateful thanks to Judith Testa and to Ask.com, here are the facts that every modern historian of Lorenzo has ignored:

Clarice and Lorenzo had TEN children:

■            Lucrezia Maria Romola de’ Medici (Florence, 4 August 1470 – 15 November 1553); married 10 September 1486 Jacopo Salviati and had 10 children, including Cardinal Giovanni Salviati, Cardinal Bernardo Salviati, Maria Salviati (mother of Cosimo I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany), and Francesca Salviati (mother of Pope Leo XI)

■            Twins who died after birth (March 1471)

■            Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici (Florence, 15 February 1472 – Garigliano River, 28 December 1503), ruler of Florence after his father’s death, called “the Unfortunate”

■            Maria Maddalena Romola de’ Medici (Florence, 25 July 1473 – Rome, 2 December 1528), married 25 February 1487 Franceschetto Cybo (illegitimate son of Pope Innocent VIII) and had seven children

■            Contessina Beatrice de’ Medici (23 September 1474 – September 1474), died young

■            Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici (Florence, 11 December 1475 – Rome, 1 December 1521), ascended to the Papacy as Pope Leo X on 9 March 1513

■            Luisa de’ Medici (Florence, 25 January 1477 – July 1488), also called Luigia, was betrothed to Giovanni de’ Medici il Popolano but died young

■            Contessina Antonia Romola de’ Medici (Pistoia, 16 January 1478 – Rome, 29 June 1515); married 1494 Piero Ridolfi (1467 – 1525) and had five children, including Cardinal Niccolò Ridolfi

■            Giuliano di Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Nemours (Florence, 12 March 1479 – Florence, 17 March 1516), created Duke of Nemours in 1515 by King Francis I of France

Raphael's portrait of Giuliano, son of Lorenzo de' Medici, who grew up to be the Duke of Nemours. He was conceived in the immediate aftermath of the conspiracy which had caused the death of Lorenzo's brother, Giuliano, and was born when Lorenzo's wife and children were living outside of Florence for their safety.

Because I can’t stop sleuthing now, I’ve tracked the source of Ask to Wikipedia, which is very much better with references. The source of the above seems to be the entry on Lorenzo himself, subsection ‘marriage and children’. When I checked references at the bottom, I found a section called ‘Further Reading’ listing all those historians who have failed with the facts. But underneath that is a section on historical fiction listing three novels, all mine, and obviously a much more dependable source of information, because I’d got it all right.

And now I’m curious about something else. The name ‘Romola’ which is unfamiliar to me in any context other than the eponymous title of George Eliot’s novel set in the Renaissance, occurs frequently among the Medici girls. Whatever the source of Wiki’s piece is (Encyclopedia Britannica?), I strongly suspect it was one or derived from one which Eliot used.