Guest Spot 9

September 2017

A Thank You to Sharon K. Penman
by Annie Whitehead

I was introduced to Sharon Penman's writing in a general recommendation from my sister, when I first moved to Cumbria and was living in a cottage by myself. In the days before mobile phones, Sky TV and the internet, books were not just a pleasure, they were an essential!

Two of Penman's books were on the list, and a random choice found me picking The Sunne in Splendour to read first. This book was first published in 1982, although my copy dates from 1986, the year of my move.

photo of my own copy
Despite having studied history at 'A' Level and then for my degree, the only time I had been taught anything about the Wars of the Roses was as an introduction to the Tudors, in order to give some contextual perspective to the syllabus. This book was a revelation. I was taken into another world - inhabited by people I thought I knew: Edward IV, Warwick the Kingmaker, Cecily Neville, and Richard of Gloucester himself. It was lush, and it was massive. What a brick of a book - 882 pages in paperback - and I was to keep the company of these people for a long time.

Some of my preconceptions were confirmed, and some were challenged. Although my views on Richard III remain ambivalent, Penman drew a real and believable portrait of a man who must have occupied one of the most tricky positions in royal history.

I wanted more.

Next on the list came Here Be Dragons, the first in her Welsh Trilogy. I knew nothing about this period, or indeed the area. The landscape, literal and metaphorical, was foreign to me. Again I was drawn into a different world, this time that of Llewelyn ap Iorwerth and his English bride, Joanna, natural daughter of King John. I learned so much, about Welsh history, about this formidable woman, and Penman brilliantly placed her in a quandary: how does one reconcile one's feelings for one's father, when as a king he acts less than honourably?

photo of my own copy
The second volume in the trilogy takes us back into England, and Falls the Shadow focuses on the life of Simon de Montfort and his wife, the king's sister. Again, family loyalties lie at the heart of the drama as they are put under an almost intolerable strain. The history is vivid, the battle scenes horrific, the love scenes tender. So well-written is the character of Simon, that years later, visiting the site of the battle of Evesham, I found tears pricking my eyes.

photo of my own copy
The final volume, The Reckoning, takes us back to Wales. Here, Llewelyn's grandson, also Llewelyn, agrees to marry the de Montforts' daughter, Ellen. By all accounts, this became a marriage of true love, but it was hard won. The enemy here is Edward I, and he kept the couple apart for many years. Llewelyn is not simply battling Edward's determination to stamp his authority on Wales, he is also fighting his own siblings. One scene, involving Ellen at the palace at Abergwyngregyn, had me sobbing. To know that this is all based on real events only adds to the poignancy.

photo of my own copy
By coincidence, shortly after I'd finished this series, we had a family holiday in North Wales. It was a 'pin in a map' decision - a guest house that could provide a family room for two adults and three children, plus a double room for my parents - and that booking found us driving through all the places mentioned in these novels. My love affair with the area had begun, and has never ended. So much so that I visit, on average, twice a year, and have even learned to speak the language (badly.)

I next read When Christ and His Saints Slept. The title is taken from a quote referring to the civil war between Stephen and Matilda (called Maude in the novel.) Again, it is the perfect blend of history, and dramatisation. Time and again, I found myself marvelling at Maude's fortitude, only to read afterwards that all the incidents were based on true events. Penman does not falsely empower her medieval women; she describes them, tells the stories of their lives, while keeping them firmly in their historical context. And they are more powerful because of it. The male characters are by turns heroic, and humanly flawed.

photo of my own copy
Nowhere, perhaps, is this more true of her writing than in her next book, about Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II. Again, this is a period about which I am less familiar, never having studied it officially. Amazon says that Time and Chance is the second of her Eleanor Trilogy, When Christ and His Saints Slept being the first, although I read the former as a stand-alone novel. Here we get to know Eleanor, but in this volume the focus is on her husband Henry's dealings with Thomas Becket. To have this episode played out between two men, once friends, with conflicting ambitions and points of view, rather than simply two names from the history books, brought depth and detail to one of the most famous arguments in history.


I confess, because of a gap in publication, I did not read the last of the trilogy, The Devil's Brood, (although she wrote two more novels after this, expanding the trilogy to tell the story of Lionheart) nor have I read her Justin de Quincy Mysteries, which feature fictional characters. I can't imagine that they are any less brilliantly conceived and delivered, though.

Reading the novels of Sharon Penman had a profound and lasting effect on me. It increased my knowledge of medieval periods scarcely taught at schools and universities. It brought me closer to the people who made that history, by introducing them to me as real people, rooted firmly in their own time, but nevertheless experiencing universal emotions. And it nourished a desire, burgeoning since my undergraduate days, to do the same service to the characters who populated the British Isles before 1066. In a word, and for all these reasons, Sharon Penman's novels are inspiring.

Annie Whitehead, author of novels and stories set in Ango-Saxon Mercia

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Sharon Penman is of Anglo-Irish  heritage and lives in America. She has degrees in history and in law and was a practising lawyer until the publication of The Sunne in Splendour, her first novel.
Find her Amazon author page HERE



15 comments:

  1. Thank you, Annie - Sharon is certainly a fabulous writer! I was 'introduced' to her in a rather strange way! A Facebook friend of mine happens to be the president (?) of tyhe Sharon Kay Penman Appreciation Society - in Australia! They are most active in promoting Sharon's books and I was 'virtually bullied' into reading Sunne. Glad I was, it's a fantastic book. I progressed to the Welsh trilogy and, yes, I was in tears too! Swiftly followed by Time and Chance and Devil's Brood. Saints is on my TBR pile!!! Thoroughly recommended to anyone who hasn't read any of her books....

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    1. Sharon is a remarkable woman - I personally owe my entire writing career to her!

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    2. Her books are wonderful - in fact I'm itching now to re-read them all!

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    3. I'll raise my hand with you ladies. I would not be writing without her. She often tries to minimize her influence on me, saying I would have found my way into it eventually without her, but I strongly disagree (and tell her so!)

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    4. She said similar to me Stephanie - without her input I would never have had the confidence to take that 'next step'. And Sharon can take the blame (*laugh*) for this review site as well! Because she helped me take that first step up a very long (and occasionally wobbly) ladder my way of saying 'thank you' is to help, where and how I can, new promising authors. Hence this review blog!

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    5. My approach as well, Helen. She often calls us a dying breed! LOL! So I figure, as do you, that the best I can do to repay that kindness is pass it on, wherever and however I can.

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  2. Annie, this is a fine testament to Sharon's writing prowess and the joy her books bring to many lives. I, too, fell in love with Sunne in Splendour and spent all the next years impatiently waiting for more from this formidable writer. I don't know what kind of a lawyer Sharon was but she is certainly my writing hero and I'm glad she turned to writing full time. I know as I write my own historicals that her stamp is indelibly etched in my brain and, hopefully, touches my own writing. What a tour de force she is! A couple of years ago at the Historical Novel Society conference in Denver I had about 15 minutes of private conversation with her. It was a fluke but I never forget it. She is gracious, funny and absolutely kind. Yay, Sharon Kay Penman! Thanks for writing about her, Annie.

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    1. Thank you Elaine - totally agree with all you've said!

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    2. Thanks Elaine - I'm glad you liked the article. I so wanted to do justice to Sharon's writing and to her influence on so many other writers.

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  3. Sharon is a wonderful author - one of the queens of the genre. I have every book she has written and they are now starting to fall apart. Soon, I'll have to do what I have done with Helen's, lol. Buy replacement copies.
    They are books to read more than once, to enjoy them again, to fall in love with the characters again, and to learn from them - both historically, and as a writer. My favourite type of homework.

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    1. You can't go wrong with a Penman novel! :-)

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  4. One of my favourite historicals of all time is Here Be Dragons. The characters have been imprinted in my memory.

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    1. Oh, didn't we all fall head-over-heels in love with Llewelyn!

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    2. Simon is my literary boyfriend. :-) Visiting Evesham 4 years ago was a very emotional experience for me, I do admit.

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  5. A quick update - Sharon attempted to respond, but a wretched cyber-monster searching for nice responses to devour ate it - we will try again to post something....

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Helen