Category Archives: Guest Blogger
GUEST POST FROM
If it wasn’t all true, it would be hard to believe.
Just thirty years before Jesus, an eighteen year old princess tried to take over the world? Outrageous. But that’s what happened.
She was the seventh Ptolemaic Queen Cleopatra but really – there is only one. She has been variously portrayed as virtuous suicide, exuberant lover, professional courtesan, scheming manipulator, and femme fatale.
Was she Shakespeare’s cruel and lazy siren, George Bernard Shaw’s man-eater or Elizabeth Taylor’s alluring beauty?
Hollywood has never had any doubts. In the thirties Cecil B de Mille offered the role to Claudette Colbert with the words: “How would you like to play the wickedest woman in history?”
But was she really history’s wickedest woman?
She was certainly a woman with real cojones.
She took on Roman military and political power at the apogee of its power. If she had succeeded – and she very nearly did – the world today might look a very different place.
God really might be a woman – called Isis.
photograph: George Shulkin
It is true that she scandalized the Roman world, but much of what was said about her at the time was mostly misinformation used by her enemy, Augustus, to rally his fellow Romans against her.
He used her to turn the tables on Anthony, who was his rival for power in Rome, leaking rumours about her bathing in asses’ milk and having sex with her slaves in order to make Anthony look ridiculous.
And it worked; worked so well in fact that his propaganda still informs much of popular opinion about her, even today.
She was certainly not the sexual virago of legend. She did not copulate with crocodiles, (it’s dangerous and probably not that much fun) or with her slaves (beneath her dignity). In fact, it seems she only slept with two men all her life, and both of them were husbands.
Well, not her husbands, admittedly – but in fairness, she did marry them later, according to Egyptian rite, if not theirs.
The real Cleopatra was a consummate political animal, a woman far ahead of her time; she had the marketing acumen of Lady Gaga, the ruthlessness of Margaret Thatcher and the charm of Lady Diana.
Yet we don’t really know what she looked like. But surely, you say – she looked like Elizabeth Taylor? With a bob, and a beauty spot, reclining on an antique sunbed?
Some historians even speculate that Cleopatra may have even been blonde. As she was part Macedonian, well, there’s a fair chance.
I toyed with the idea of having Cleopatra as a blonde in my novel, to show that I had done my research and to distance myself from the movie. But my publisher said to me: ‘you can’t do that. Cleopatra is now far too deeply ingrained in our consciousness as a bobbed brunette, it will jar in a reader’s imagination.’
She may not even have been that beautiful. There are few existing likenesses of her extant. (A coin from the period shows her in profile, and it’s a pretty terrifying image too, not unlike Mike Tyson.)
There are only two ambiguous accounts from her contemporaries; Plutarch was at pains to describe her ‘pleasing personality’ – which is damning with faint praise – and only Cassius Dio lauded her looks, but did he say that because he had to?
And anyway, does it really matter? In the context of her story it was her spirit not her looks that really mattered.
Despite overwhelming odds, she almost became ruler of the entire western world using her intelligence and her daring. In the end she scandalized the Romans not because of her sexual conquests – but because a woman almost beat them at their own game.
CLEOPATRA by Colin Falconer
Please welcome Colin Falconer back to Write It Forward/Write on the River
When I wrote Anastasia there were still lingering doubts about whether she had survived the botched execution in which the rest of her family were murdered. What was more certain was that the man who organised this bloody episode, Yakov Yurovsky, was a couple of cadres short of the full committee. He must have been off sick when they did Assassination 101 at Secret Police School.
On his orders, the family were herded into a basement and shot with revolvers through the doorway by him and his men, the gunpowder burning their eyes and creating a fog in the tiny room. They had to fire over each other’s shoulders and Yurovsky claimed he came out deaf in one ear.
This method was not efficient. Also, the women had hidden their jewels inside their corsets and these acted as virtual bullet proof vests so they then had to be dispatched with bayonets. It was beyond brutal.
These circumstances left open the possibility that someone survived this bloody chaos. There were rumours (later proven false) that for days afterwards the Bolsheviks searched trains in the Urals looking for a young woman fitting Anastasia’s description.
For years the story of the missing princess captured the public imagination. Anastasia soon had more impersonators than Elvis Presley. The most notable, Anna Anderson, pursued her case in the European courts for over thirty years. After her death it transpired that she was not only NOT Anastasia, she wasn’t even Russian.
The remains of the Romanov family were finally discovered near Ekaterinburg in 1991. Intriguingly two skeletons were missing, those of a young woman and the boy, Alexei.
Even then, it was impossible to imagine how Anastasia could have escaped, even if she survived the gruesome debacle in the basement and was still alive when they threw her on the cart with the rest of her family to be buried in the forest. And Alexei; just impossible. He was a haemophiliac. Any serious wound would have made death inevitable anyway.
But it wasn’t the mystery of Anastasia’s fate that motivated me to write about her. It was a story I read in the newspaper about a man in Liverpool, England who had been found unconscious in the street a year before and was still languishing in a public hospital. He had severe amnesia. Authorities published his photograph hoping that someone might know who he was and come forward and identify him.
Most memory loss is transient. But a severe head trauma, when suffered simultaneously with severe emotional distress, can bring about a rare and long lasting amnesia.
This made me reflect on the nature of identity.
And so my story starts in Shanghai in 1920, when a woman named Anastasia – a common Russian name – tries to jump off a bridge and end her miserable life. The man who saves her notes a remarkable resemblance to the lost princess.
Is she the woman she becomes after he saves her – or the woman they tell her she was, before that night?
If someone took away your family, your identity, all your memories – what would you become?
For the story, I imagined a woman appearing in Shanghai in 1920 suffering from traumatic amnesia. People take her to be Anastasia – in order to fulfill their own agenda. Over time she struggles to become the person they want her to be – becoming someone else’s idea seems better than being no one at all.
Is this what some of us do anyway – spend our lives becoming what others want of us? If so, how do we then discover who we really are – so we can follow our own course?
The question of memory has become more poignant to me over the last year. My mother is rapidly losing hers – sometimes she struggles to remember the man who was her husband for 52 years. She even takes a while to recognize me or my brother now.
Who we are if we are not the memories we have accumulated and the name someone gave us is an interesting question. It intrigued me far more than whether Anastasia survived or not. She didn’t, by the way: in 2008, two more skeletons were discovered, 200 yards from the original grave site, and were positively identified as the missing two Romanovs.
But the puzzle of our true identity, that mythical twenty one grams, may take much longer to solve.
Please welcome Guest Blogger Shannon Donnelly!
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There’s blood in the air—Downton Abbey’s latest season ended, and it did not end well. The fan-friends I have are all deep into disappointment. Which shows what the real attraction has been: we thought we were watching a romance.
Downton Abbey offered an escape from cell phones, job deadlines, traffic, and a way-too-busy world. That’s the great thing about the past—we know how it worked out (mostly). Of course, folks back then had problems—it wouldn’t be an interesting story if the characters didn’t have troubles galore. But they also had fabulous dinner parties, social whirls, servants, glamour and wit.
And let’s not forget the clothes.
And the houses, too. (Wouldn’t you just love to spend a few days wandering those beautiful rooms, and those gardens?)
Downton Abbey brings us an elegant world…and guys who look great dressed for dinner. There are jewels and gowns, and all of it can sweep us back to a time when who is going to marry whom really does seem like the most earth-shattering issue at hand.
But Downton Abbey failed (no, I’m not going to spoil it, but I recommend only watching the first couple of seasons…up to the wedding…if you want that mostly happy ending). But the Abbey opted out of the romance, which is why I’m heading back to my Regency England.
Like Downton Abbey, the stories I write set in Regency England have glamour…and great clothes. It’s about the wit, the style, the elegance. The setting, and all the details that go into that, is a huge part of any Regency—the elegant houses, the horses, the carriage rides, the candlelight, and guys who look great dressed for dinner.
Of course the also characters have troubles—it could be a rough world back then, particularly if you were a servant, or not one of the rich and titled. In the Regency, there was a war going on (and on and on, since France went from a revolution to Bonaparte making trouble for everyone). But the focus—in a Regency, and particularly in a romance—is on who is going to marry whom. And will it work out?
That’s where Downton Abbey failed—we wanted to see how will Matthew and Lady Mary (still not spoiling—go read a summary if you must), handle their marriage, or what’s going to happen to the servants as the world keeps changing. Instead, the story shifted (as TV shows tend to do). And it was a disappointing shift for most of us. (And even more changes are coming to the series.)
So it’s back to Regency romances for me—I’m heading back to where I know I will not lose a favorite character (there are better ways of dealing with that, you know). After all, those glamorous clothes need to be filled, and I want those favorite characters to stick around.
Shannon Donnelly Bio
Shannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency, the Grand Prize in the “Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer” contest, judged by Nora Roberts, RWA’s Golden Heart, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: “simply superb”…”wonderfully uplifting”….and “beautifully written.”
Her Regency romances can be found as ebooks on all formats, and include four novellas now out as a collection with Cool Gus Publishing.
Please welcome to Write It Forward/Write on the River International Bestselling Author Colin Falconer discussing one of his books from the Famous Women series: Harem. Welcome Colin!
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You are young and you are beautiful. You have been captured by the Turks after your Balkan city succumbed to a long siege. Your father and brothers are dead. You are terrified you will now be raped and murdered.
But you are not harmed by your captors, fearsome as they look. Instead you are taken back to the Ottoman capital and introduced into a gloomy wooden palace the Turks call the Eski Saraya.
You are put into the care of the Mistress of the Robes, where your flair for needlework is put to good use. You are taught Arabic and the Koran. But it is made clear to you that you are now a slave. Whatever high position in life you had before, now you are nothing; the Sultan’s plaything.
You accept that will never see your own country again. This is your home now and there are only two ways out of this dreary place. If you do not attract the Sultan’s eye he may one day give you away as a wife to one of his senior officers or ministers. But that’s if you’re lucky. You might just as easily be neglected and forgotten.
Or you can turn the tables.
You soon realize that these other women who share your predicament are your competition. One of them is going to be the mother of the next Sultan and attain a position of pre-eminent power in the country that enslaved her. If you are beautiful enough and clever enough and cunning enough that woman could be you.
The first step is to become gözde - ‘in the eye’; that is, you must catch the attention of the Lord of Life, the Sultan himself. An ambitious girl like yourself might find a way. It depends how devious you are.
Or you may rely on kismet, fate. One day you will wait with a hundred other girls in the court of the harem, pearls and jewels glittering in the sun. As the Sultan passes among you, he will take a handkerchief from the sleeve of his robe and drape it over your shoulder. You have been chosen! This is your golden chance.
You may have one night and be forgotten; or this could be the road to absolute power. It is entirely up to you.
You are taken first to the Keeper of the Baths, your entire body is shaved by slave girls and you are bathed in water scented with jasmine and orange. Your hair is shampooed with henna. Afterwards another slave coats your body with a mixture of warm rice flour and oil.
You are then prepared and coiffed and primped down to the last eyelash and the last drop of balm, dressed elaborately in clothes of incredible richness. Finally the Chief Black Eunuch escorts you to the Sultan’s bedchamber.
If you can please the Lord of Life then he might invite you back to his bed again. If the invitations become more frequent then you become iqbal, a favourite.
You will be given your own apartments, your own eunuch slaves, even an allowance of your own. You are on your way.
But it will all count for nothing unless you get pregnant and bear the Sultan a son. If you do, then you become a kadin, one of the Sultan’s wives.
You are now playing this deadly game in earnest because there are only ever four kadins. After that, the abortionist is called in.
As one of the select four you are just a breath away from power now. You are also in deadly danger.
Only one of you can become the mother of the next Sultan, the Sultan Valide. If you do, your power will be unquestioned, you will rule the entire Harem and your son will reign supreme in the country that made you a slave.
If you fail? You will probably end up at the bottom of the Bosphorus, drowned in a sack. So you cannot afford failure.
You must be clever and you must be charming and you must be attractive and you must be utterly ruthless.
These are your choices. This is the game.
This is the harem.
HAREM, Colin Falconer’s bestselling novel – translated into 14 languages across Europe – is now FREE for just two days Feb 13 and 14 on Amazon. Get yours here