By Cindy Wolfe Boynton
Finishing The Tapestry–the final book in Nancy Bilyeau’s Tutor-era trilogy about Dominican novice Joanna Stafford–means saying goodbye to one of recent historical fiction’s most original, likeable and feisty heroines. … Though I’m hoping this goodbye isn’t forever.
“I’m not going to say that I’m never going back to Joanna, because she feels like part of my family,” Nancy said during our interview, which aired on this past Monday night’s Literary New England Radio Show. Linda Goodnight, author of The Memory House, and MO Walsh, author of My Sunshine Away, were my other guests.
“People’s responses to these books have also been just super,” Nancy continued, “so it’s possible that one day I’ll return to Joanna and write more. I do have other ideas for her. I’m also so passionate about Tudor England.”
It’s no secret to anyone who listens to the Literary New England podcast, or follows me on Twitter, that I’m a huge Nancy Bilyeau/Joanna Stafford fan. I LOVED the first two books in the series, couldn’t wait for The Tapestry to be published, and was ecstatic reading it from beginning to end. Skillfully written and plotted, and full of Renaissance color, The Tapestry did not disappoint.
Like The Crown and The Chalice, The Tapestry is part thriller, part mystery and part romance. All are set in the mid-1500s. And, similar to Deborah Harkness’s The Discovery of Witches/All Souls series or JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books, each consecutive novel becomes bigger in length and scope, with The Tapestry satisfyingly brining Joanna’s story to an end.
In this page-turner, Joanna–whose life has been threatened more than once since Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell began destroying priories –has resolved to live quietly in her village of Dartford, weaving tapestries. A woman ahead of her time, she’s determined to live life on her terms, which means no more involvements in dangerous quests, conspiracies or the royal court. But then her cousin King Henry summons her to Whitehall Palace to add to his tapestry collection, which occurs in this excerpt from Chapter 1:
I was once told that whenever I felt suspicious of someone’s intent, no matter how faintly, I should trust that instinct, but since the man who issued this advice had himself tried to kill me, and nearly succeeded, it was difficult to know how much weight to give his words.
I felt this distrust in a place where all others seemed at ease, as I followed a page through the tall, gleaming rooms of the Palace of Whitehall, filled with the most prosperous subjects of King Henry VIII. To anyone else, it would seem the safest place in all of England.
But not to me. Never to me.
Only eight days earlier I’d received the summons, calling me back to London, the city where I had seen much cruelty and death. I read it in my small house on the High Street of Dartford, where I had come to serve as a novice at its priory of Dominican sisters and hoped and prayed to prove my worthiness to take vows and become a Bride of Christ. But, two years ago, by the king’s command, our exquisite priory was torn down, and I was cast out with the others.
“This missive is from the king’s council, Sister Joanna,” said Gregory, pushing it into my hands as if it were a loaf pulled fresh from the oven that was singeing his fingertips. Gregory was a clerk in the town. He married the vintner’s daughter just after Candlemas Day, and his face soon thickened, like a hunting dog turns fat and sleek when brought into the house at season’s end. But Gregory, no matter his station now, once served as porter to our priory and continued to take an interest in my welfare. He still called me Sister. When a letter came to town bearing the royal seal, Gregory insisted on delivering it to me.
I thanked him and closed the door on the bright noise of the High Street. My fingers heavy with dread, I found a knife to break the beeswax seal.
In the court of the king that, unknown to him, Joanna has twice attempted to overthrow, the former nun fears for her life, and rightly so. An assassin attempts to kill her within moments of arriving at Whitehall. And with so many hidden plots and agendas surrounding her, it’s impossible to tell who is friend or foe.
Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, Thomas Culpepper, Eustace Chapuys, Edward Seymour and the fascinating German painter Hans Holbein are among the characters brought to life in the compelling The Tapestry, where Joanna goes in search of the former friar she loves, fights for her life, faces off against the king and is ultimately forced to choose her fate.
Nancy’s bio on Amazon says that although she lives in New York City, her mind is always in Tudor England. In The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry, her passion and expertise on the 16th century are clear. She also blogs extensively about the period, right now focusing many of her posts on the PBS series Wolf Hall, which is based on Hilary Mantel’s magnificent prize-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.
Nancy’s knowledge and enthusiasm for the players and mindset of the time make her blog, like her books, deliciously rich.
Image from twainquotes.com
It’s been said that before you can truly know Mark Twain, you have to know the Mississippi River. The literary giant was raised on its banks in Hannibal, Missouri. And on this day 156 years ago – April 9, 1859 – the 23-year-old fledgling newspaper man earned his steamboat pilot’s license.
It was a dream he’d held since childhood, and that he wrote about in his 1883 Life on the Mississippi:
When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman. We had transient ambitions of other sorts, but they were only transient. When a circus came and went, it left us all burning to become clowns; the first negro minstrel show that came to our section left us all suffering to try that kind of life; now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates. These ambitions faded out, each in its turn; but the ambition to be a steamboatman always remained.
Still known at this time by his given name, Samuel Clemens, he worked as a steamboat pilot for two years, stopping only when the Civil War stopped steamboat travel. It was during this time as a pilot that he adopted the pseudonym “Mark Twain”– the term boatmen used to call to each other to warn where the Mississippi was only two fathoms deep, the minimum for safe travel.
Cover of the original U.S. edition, 1883.
As Twain, Clemens lived and wrote in California and Connecticut, among other places. But no matter where he was physically, the 2,300-mile river was never far from his mind. He wrote a series of essays about it for Atlantic Monthly, which later became the book Life on the Mississippi. In “Two Ways of Seeing a River,” it’s clear that, even years later, he is enamored with it:
I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the sombre shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring.
I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home.
As most high school English students know, the Mississippi also plays an essential role in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” as Huck and Jim use it, and their handmade raft, to escape to freedom and from the evils of slavery.
For diehard Twain fans, the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, is as much a must-see as the Mississippi itself.