Thursday, April 27, 2017

Guest Post! Deborah Harkness’ 2017 Dale Somers Memorial Lecture at Georgia State University

Photo from Georgia State University website
Hey fellow fans! We have a treat for those of you who didn't get the chance to see Deb at this lecture held back on the 7th of April. No fear! We have the experience chronicled by someone who has! We'd like to thank Dorimar Rosado for agreeing to share her experience with all of us!
By Dorimar Rosado

I have been fortunate in that I have attended several of Deb’s chats and readings. These opportunities to see Deb in person are not only remarkable, but one always manages to leave her with a new nugget of information or interesting fact about the early modern period. This one lecture — and I call it lecture intentionally — stood out for me because it seemed to be geared towards the likely attendants, history majors and faculty from Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. Deb even had some inspirational words for these future historians.

Before I share the more prominent points, I would like to let you know that I did not take many notes, and I am relying on my memory. In most instances I am paraphrasing Deb. I trust that the information I am sharing here is as accurate as my fuzzy memory will allow.

If you have attended one of Deb’s readings you have probably heard about her inspiration for A Discovery of Witches. Deb was on holiday in Mexico, and it happened to be raining a lot so Deb and family were browsing a bookstore. Deb was floored by the number of books featuring wolves, vampires, witches, and other paranormal characters. In discussing this phenomena with her teenage niece, she thought to herself, what do these creatures do for a living, how do they date, what do they eat?

This thought stayed with her for about a week and then she decided to write what was originally going to be an Op-Ed piece. She would write first thing every morning for an hour day after day for an entire year. After the 10th or 11th chapter she realized that Op-Ed piece was a novel in which she combined not only modern science but early science, alchemy, and magic--themes that feature prominently in her non fiction book The Jewel House. It is worth mentioning that Deb still writes for an hour first thing in the morning, schedule permitting. Another one of my favorite authors, Isabel Allende (House of Spirits) starts a new book always on January 8th, the date she sat down to write, what turned out to be The House of Spirits, about her family’s life after the passing of her grandfather. You see, we all have rituals; you don’t have to be a witch. Deb also told me that she writes in the morning because is the time where she is less tired. She dedicates the best time of her day to us, her fans.

A Discovery of Witches, the first book in her All Souls Trilogy, is a chivalric romance, and a nod to her love of archives and research. She also mentioned that she had to stick it (paraphrasing big time here) to Matthew Hopkins the Witchfinder General, and author of a guide to hunting witches by the same name as the first book in the trilogy.

The second book, Shadow of Night, (and here I need help from other attendees because I only caught a fraction of Deb’s statement, and now I don’t have a context!) limits of historical fiction. Its title is a based on George Chapman’s philosophical poems The Shadow of Night (1594) where he compares Queen Elizabeth I to the goddess Diana.

The last book in the trilogy, The Book of Life, part Sci-Fi, part intellectual thriller is where genetics, timeless magic, and the skills of a modern historian are combined. Its title is a nod to Marsilio Ficino’s Three Books on Life.

Deb briefly mentioned that a little history, like tarragon in cooking, goes a long way in fiction. The fact that she is writing fiction, instead of a scholarly article, allows her to take actual historical events and items and spin them into the story without the requirement of having three sources of evidence to support these facts.

According to Deb, historians should allow everyone in, instead of keeping to themselves in their ivory towers and libraries researching history. She even gave us two examples. The first where a group of 10 year olds were at the library on a field trip and approached her while she was doing research. Their teacher was very nervous that the kids would damage anything or get too rowdy but it turned out the children were enthralled by the book Deb was working with (I believe it was Bestiary, The Book of Beasts: Compendiums of Medieval Monsters and Moral Lessons but not 100% certain. Other attendees may be able to confirm or correct this).

In another instance, an alarm guarding the Voynich manuscript went off and the police showed up to investigate. It turned out to be a false alarm and the officers left but not before scrutinizing the manuscript.

Deb mentioned that she likes to treat her writing of fiction with the same rigor that she applies to her academic work. For this reason she will visit sites mentioned in the books or live in a stone cottage for a month to see how life in the 16c would have been for someone living in Oxfordshire. Often, all of this research ends up in a line or two in her books, but the dedication to her fiction is as thorough as to her academic work.

The mysteries of history are often the foundation of one of her story arcs; for instance, Ashmole 782 is an actual manuscript that happens to be missing. When, in Shadow of Night, Matthew and Diana end up in Prague was because, as she kept writing, time kept moving and she knew that Matthew Roydon had been in Prague in the Spring of 1591. So Prague had to be incorporated to the story and that is how we get to meet Rudolph II and Edward Kelly. Part of the story in Shadow of Night takes place in the Blackfriars, which was a time and location near and dear to Deb’s heart and which she knew very well due to her academic work, The Jewel House.

Another very interesting point was that the clothes that women wore in Elizabethan times provided a narrative since women wore their status and knowledge in their garments.

Deb then read from Shadow of Night, the passage where Diana is getting ready to meet Queen Elizabeth I in Hampton Court.

Deb said that if we were to read a book on Renaissance self-fashioning (I believe the book was written by Stephen Greenblatt who introduced the term in 1980) we would see Matthew in that description.

Before the lecture was opened to questions, Deb shared the following nuggets of inspiration not only for the students of history but also applicable to us, the fans:
  • “History, like fiction, helps us develop empathy."
  • "The life of the mind has power.”
  • “Don’t cling to orthodoxy. Let your freak flag fly.”
Deb’s goal is to have the readers of her fiction think more deeply and critically about the world around them.

  • Is there any person from history that is calling at you at the moment? A: 17c woman who was a farmer in Virginia and cultivated silkworm fascinates Deb as of late. This woman’s husband dies and she takes over the farming operations and eventually goes back to England.
  • Deb also mentioned Eileen Power1, I don’t recall exact details, but my notes have the following words: telescope, Sheffield, botany and astronomy.
  • She was asked for updates on the TV series. Deb said that she cannot comment about when, what, where, or anything else about the series.
  • Someone asked or commented on Matthew and Diana’s relationship and Deb said that she wanted to write about a couple that was not high school age or was having a midlife crisis. She intentionally wrote them in their 30s, an age not frequently written about and one where she had some experience.
  • Someone mentioned the Voynich manuscript and her introduction for a reproduction that was released late last year. Deb mentioned that no one has been able to translate or decipher the manuscript and she thinks that someone with lots of money commissioned it with the intent of deceiving people.
  • Someone asked Deb what inspired her to write such a sensory narrative -- the smells, colors, and descriptive passages. Deb said that her grandmother was sight impaired and that probably influenced her. She was very close to her grandmother, who was an avid gardener, and would describe things in detail to her to make up for the visual impairment.
  • Deb is currently working on two books, one about Matthew and the other about Marcus. The twins are in both books.
  • Deb was asked if there was a character that she really enjoy writing about. She first mentioned Rudolph II, because ... you know, Rudolph.😊 But she also mentioned Jacqueline Vautrollier Field, the wife of the printer (Thomas Vautrollier), in Shadow of Night. Madame Vautrollier actually ran the print shop, which was something not very common in that day and age. It was only a few lines in the book but served as homage to the very capable women of the time.

Some photos used in the presentation:

Ten year olds looking at the Book of Beasts, beast from book.
The following are examples of embroidery worn in women’s dresses; the embroidery transmitted the wearer's knowledge and status.

Example 1
Example 2
Example 3 - Lady Arabella Stuart by Marcus Gheeraerts.
Her skirt is embroidered with spider webs.
Example 4
1 Eileen Power's literary works can be found listed on Goodreads
We are thankful to Dorimar for taking the time to write/share this post!

Photos for this piece are © 2017 Dorimar Rosado.

Til next time, folks!

xo, ~The Daemons

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