I was very saddened the other day to read about the death of much loved, multi-million selling historical and fantasy novelist Roberta Gellis. You can read a brief obituary of this remarkable lady HERE. Roberta was a long-serving class act of the romantic historical genre and one of the major inspirations and influences on my early career. She was also kind enough to talk to me via e-mail on occasion and we had several detailed and interesting discussions about our mutual interest in the twelfth century, its characters and politics.
I first came across Roberta's work in my late teens. By that stage I had already embarked on my own (unpublished and a hobby at that time) historical writing. Having developed a passionate interest in the Middle Ages, I would haunt the library and devour whatever historical novels set in that period I could find. Being short of income at the time, the library was a godsend. The books that I wound up borrowing numerous times, I went out and bought when I had money from my Saturday job or was given book tokens for birthdays and Christmas.
Tortured heroes and Beauty and the Beast are stereotypical features in fiction of all categories but have a particularly entrenched home in historical romance where they can often be much of a muchness, but Gellis was an author who soared above the cliche. Her hero, the badly battle-scarred Cain had a club foot and his mother had died giving birth to him and his twin brother. His father, in grim bitterness had bestowed on him the biblical name of the man who had slain his own brother.
Leah comes from a family where she is only valued as breeding stock, and has learned to be very nimble with her wits when it comes to peace-keeping and making the best out of her circumstances. However, she is no Mary-Sue but a resourceful and quietly determined young woman. She and Cain are married by force of dynastic and political circumstance, and how they come to deal with each other's flaws and fears, and to appreciate the finer points amid all the political machinations, makes for a terrific story full of emotional triumph and pain as well as edge of the seat adventure and skulduggery. For me the reader it was a wonderful absorbing, believable read.
I enjoyed the more flighty historical romances I read, (I loved Kathleen Woodiwiss's way over the top epic historicals) but now I could clearly appreciate the difference between what felt like reality and what was more akin to getting out the dressing up box to flounce around in the costumes. Roberta Gellis made history live for me more than any other author had done up to that point. As a fledgling writer, she also taught me that it was possible to write romantic tales that were about people who were of their time. They thought like medieval people, they behaved like medieval people. They drew you into their world and made you believe in them and their dilemmas, all of which were utterly realistic. This was why I loved reading Gellis novels and this was what I wanted to write. Something that felt real to me.
But then, for me, Robert Gellis excelled her own already high standards and produced something rather special when she brought out her 4 book Roselynde Chronicle series - Roselynde, Alinor, Joanna and Gillian. In my opinion she hit the top of her game with these novels set in the time of King Richard, King John, and the early years of Henry III. Alinor, a wealthy young heiress who has been raised by her grandparents and given a somewhat enlightened education for a young woman, (although an education still of its time for the privileged) is given the middle-aged but vigorous and experienced knight Simon LeMagne as her guardian. What starts out in a certain amount of resentment, gradually blossoms into friendship, then love and marriage, but not without numerous trials and difficulties, including a journey on the third crusade where Alinor joins the household of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine and Simon is attached to Richard's household.
Gellis's skill lay in her ability to create a man who was drop dead gorgeous but at the same time the complete antithesis of the cardboard cutout he could so easily have become in less skilled hands. Ian de Vipont lives, breathes, walks off the page with all of his believable flaws and insecurities and sweeps the reader into his and Alinor's very real 12th century world. I read those books to shreds, especially Alinor.
When they were published in a special hardcover edition along with two more in the series, I saved up to buy the two new ones, Rhiannon and Sybelle, and made sure I had enough over to by myself a new copy of Alinor. I have to say that the covers do not particularly do the content justice. The latter always outshines the former.
Gellis was later asked to write more in this series, and completed one more - Desiree in 2000, but she said that she did not want to go further into the series really because that would mean having to write the death of Alinor and it was not something she was willing to do.
I have yet to read Gellis's novels set in the world of Greek mythology and there are sundry medieval and other works that are still on my to read pile but it means I still have work m of hers that is new to me even though no more will be written - a poignant thought.
Roberta's website is still with us online and it gives a warm glimpse into the personality of this remarkable author, who, if she hadn't taken that particular career path, might have made her career as a bio-chemist. Do go along and take a look. ROBERTA GELLIS WEBSITE
I am so sorry that such a lovely, talented lady, who has given millions of readers so much pleasure for so many years has passed away, but what a legacy she has left behind, and I honour her now and extend to her my heartfelt thanks both as a reader and a writer.
A Mortal Bane
By Roberta Gellis
Gellis, acclaimed author of The Roselynde Chronicles, shifts gears dramatically in this, her first medieval mystery. We are introduced to Southwark and London in 1139, caught in the tangle of the intrigues and conflicts precipitated by the civil war between King Stephen and his cousin, the Empress Mathilda, who many hold to be the legitimate queen of England.
We are introduced to our heroine, Magdalene la Batarde, the madam of the Old Priory Guesthouse in Southwark – not an ordinary “stew,” mind you, but the highest class brothel perhaps in all of England, with the most desirable clientele. We come to learn that Magdalene (not her real name) is likely of high birth (although the circumstances are not revealed), but that she has “fallen” after being involved in some terrible crime, perhaps murder (although never discussed in any depth). Fortunately for Magdalene, she is both a skilled embroideress and sufficiently flexible in her life choices to open a brothel with the assistance of the Bishop of Winchester, choosing as her whores three sensory-impaired women, two of whom are, naturally, skilled embroideresses as well. The third whore is visually impaired, so she isn’t expected to embroider.
No, I’m not kidding. Indeed, I initially thought, “This must be a spoof on the medieval mysteries I’ve come to know and love.” Unfortunately, Gellis was serious about this book.
A papal envoy is murdered immediately after visiting Magdalene’s stew. What he was carrying, where he has put the objects and who has murdered him is the focus of the mystery. To find the murderer and to shift blame away from the last people to see the envoy alive – the whores of Old Priory — the Bishop of Winchester appoints Sir Bellamy of Itchen (no, again, I’m not kidding). Naturally, Bell is instantly captivated by Magdalene. How he finds the murderer and whether he manages to bed Magdalene is, essentially, the balance of the action.
As a devoted fan of historical mysteries, particularly medieval ones, I was disappointed to see that Gellis did not even bother to reveal her historical sources, if any, a reasonable expectation after reading such authors as Sharan Newman and Candace Robb. We could then have known what was factually correct and what was purely an expression of literary license. Frankly, I do not know how much this information would have altered my opinion of this book, which was a chore to finish. I realize that sometimes we have to “suspend our disbelief,” but with so many fine examples of the genre being published, I would not waste my time on this one.