This week, I begin on a rewrite of my fourth book, The Revelations of Celia Masters. This is historical fiction, set in mid 17th-century Somerset, then the Chesapeake area of Virginia, then Somerset again. It’s gothic in feel and has woven in the literature and characters of the period. So you’ll meet the poets of the first Caroline Court, see Ben Jonson and get acquainted with the head of Sir Walter Raleigh and the man who brought the first pineapple to the English court. This is a book which has had a lot of interest from various quarters and…needs to be redone in the light of feedback.
Here is a synopsis (longer version; if you’re submitting, make ’em shorter and offer the whole plot) to give you a flavour.
Oooh – go and read the wonderful book, illustated below. It’s Albion’s Seed and was my greatest stimulus for my novel, together with my reading of Southern gothic – and thinking about its origins – that I am Somerset born and travelled and also in love with the South, and married to Georgia Boy. Oh, and my love for and interest in the Cavalier poets. A few more things, but I shall write on this at a later date.
Young Celia Masters was born in 1625, the year that King James I died. She is an orphan, raised by a guardian, the rich and connected Frances Masters, and remembers nothing of her parents, though she thinks she sees them in troubling dreams at night. Celia visits the Caroline court and goes on to be the inspiration for the Celia poems of Ben Jonson; Richard Lovelace writes about her as both Amarantha and Althea; she is dandled on the knee of Henrietta Maria and adored by King Charles, too. It is a gracious life and yet, Celia is unsettled and questioning, and at night returns to her troubling dreams. Of her mother, a beautiful shadowy figure; of half whispered truths. Sometimes, the fear and longing in these dreams seeps into the day world and Celia is ill at ease and runs wild late at night in the Somerset valleys which are her home, but by day she remains composed. Her maids tend her, but she sometimes hears them whisper at her door, ‘I know you what you are.’ By this she is both chilled and thrilled. Once, given a poppet by the Cavalier poets, she drives a pin into it thinking of a pompous man chiding her for impudence – and tastes wickedness: it is delicious.
Beyond Celia, the Cavalier world is crumbling and when the Civil War comes, the Cavaliers fight, or they spend their money in the cause of the king and many fly for the new land of America and try to establish themselves in the new colony there. She knows some things of the New World of America, of ‘New Britain’, as some call it. There is much here that troubles her. Is here not enough? Home is established in the Chesapeake; she is courted and feted for her beauty, this New World celebrated, and yet the arrogance of those who preside unsettles her. News reaches them of Cromwell, of war and of Charles beheaded at Whitehall, Henrietta Maria fled. Her dreams are darker, more pervasive as she lives this new life in Virginia. Celia marries, lives on a successful plantation and is the mother of three sons and a girl, loving but restless, and not appreciated by her unimaginative husband; eventually, she takes to wandering, the shifting landscape of the tidewater with the night-time dreams seeping into her day. She is restless when she sees the slaves whipped or the Algonquins insulted; when she sees the brutality of the white man and the woman. At night she creeps to the houses of the workers, shares their meals. They come to trust her and she tells of her dreams and aching heart. Rise up, say their voices; rise up say the voices of her night-time. Her dreams of a unremembered but keenly felt past permeate her waking hours and, knife to throat, Masters is forced to tell her who she really is. She is Celia Lee, child of the last witch killed under James I. Celia grows increasingly wild. Her husband tries to keep her at home and is cruel to her, insisting that she stay on the plantation and that she shames him. She wanders, receives stories, legends, from the occasional lone traveller in these parts; hears whispers. What of the lost colony of Roanoke? Young Virginia Dare? What happened to her? And then, one night, she is gone with her sons and daughter to the remote wooded areas of the frontier, Virginia. Around her, she establishes a faith, an awakening, a cult. She builds a church of sorts. With this awakening, she speaks tongues and makes magic, has powerful spells, begins to understood what she really is and who her powerful mother was – a woman King James had long wanted killed. As the old world in England crumbles, she builds, her devoted children by her side, witchery aflame: the Somerset maids who whispered ‘I know you what you are’ help her too, the Algonquin girls and the slave girls from Barbados and, astonishingly, Virginia Dare, still alive, an old woman now, kept safe in the Indian villages, seeks her out: together they establish something extraordinary. And after long life, she dies there, with her sons, leaving her daughter, Bess, to return to Somerset and begin her work there. Establish a new church of spells and sorcery. And it is the descendants of Celia – and of Bess – who keep her flame and begin the story.
I am, among other things, extending some sections of the book, reconsidering the way in which I have used dialect and dialect words – all of which has been very carefully checked insofar as it is possible to do this with mid-17th-century conversation – and I am killing some darlings. I personally love little set pieces at the beginning of books. The other night I couldn’t sleep, so I was re-reading Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies and noting that I enjoyed her notes at the beginning: Charles Brandon: a peer of limited intellect; Thomas Wyatt: (about whom I want to write, by the way) a courtier of unlimited intellect.
I’ve cut the following and offer, now, a more straightforward dive into the text. Here’s what you used to have…
Bruton, Somerset, England with reference to other English counties and people of the time.
The court of King Charles I (1600-1649) and Henrietta Maria (known also as Mary), palace of Whitehall and various, London. And with reference to the court of King James I and VI (1566-1625), his father.
Elizabeth Town, new Williamsburg, James City County, Virginia, during the emigration from the South of England and with other reference to the Chesapeake Bay. Tidewater and the James River.
Celia Masters, a young woman of Bruton, well heeled and cultured.
Francis Masters, her guardian, of Primrose House, Bruton, a landowner and man of great kindness
Celia’s maids, Agnes and Isabella.
William Berkeley, of Bruton Somerset, and governor of Virginia, 1641-1652 and 1660-1677 and with reference to other known families and characters of the time.
Cavalier poets and playwrights of the seventeenth century: Ben Jonson, Richard Lovelace, John Suckling, Robert Herrick and with reference to Edmund Waller, Thomas Carew and John Donne.
Trepanned (kidnapped or coerced) girls for employment as indentured servants in the colony, Grace, Mercy, Mary and Joan.
Slave girls, referred to by employers as ‘hands’, ‘people’ or ‘workers’, Daphne and Betty.
Algonquian Indian girls, Chepi and Numees.
And with reference to Pocahontas, born Matoaka, known as Amonute, later named as Rebecca Rolfe on her marriage to colonist John Rolfe; to her father Wahunsenacawh, the paramount chief of Tsenacommacah, an alliance of Algonquian-speaking Virginia Indians in the Tidewater region of Virginia at the time English settlers landed at Jamestown in 1607. And with reference to Virginia Dare, first white child to be born in the New World at Roanoke Island, where was sited the colony established by Sir Walter Raleigh; this disappeared and became known as the lost colony of Roanoke and the whereabouts of its inhabitants remains a mystery.
And here – do please comment – is the first chapter (with a short preface which I have not included here and may also cut).
There is a house, in a green forest clearing. At the fringes and in a new land. In a New World. Above the tidewater and amongst the fringing trees. There is a house, where there is no door and where ivy claims the gate. There is a house, with a garden whose ancient borders breathe out the last of the blown roses which are used, by now, to half-light and darkness. Still they bloom. A house, whose outbuildings tumble around the books and pitchers and tables with fat drawers. A house, with crumbling masonry and chimney stack akimbo. This house. The outside slides and falls. It’s bewildered by moss and ivy. You should not enter this place. Don’t even be fixing to enter. In the New World, in Virginia, beyond the bay and glancing at deep river.
But if you did – and, as I said, there is no door – you would, you should, draw a sharp breath.
Inside, the walls are slip-shiny and the beds made.
There is no dust and the rugs have been shaken out and made flat.
There is an altar with crescent moons, turned this way and that,
With burnished turkey feathers and jewels of marsh periwinkle:
All polished to a shine.
Such excellent housekeeping. No creatures here.
But you should not enter this house, this house in the forest.
And I am someone who should know.
My house. My church. A temple. See the shapes on the walls? Handsome, aren’t they? Crescents turned this way and that to my own purpose and for you. And other shapes too, as we shall see. A book for everyone and a stretch of white linen replenishing itself.
Find me outside and sing me a sea shanty; we’re away from the coast but I miss the tidewater dreadfully. And I miss the rush of my Somerset coast. Find me near those struggling roses, I told you about. There. Look carefully and you will see the stones. Carved stone; carmine when the light catches. There are five and I am under one of them. There are three for the beautiful boys but a monument only for the lovely girl because she lies not here. There: one for me. For friends and witch-lovers, too. For a disappeared child of whom you will have heard, grown old but safe. But none for him. Because those are pearls that were his eyes and I am no-one’s prim unveiled statue in a gallery. I will never be a lady of honour. I am no-one’s prim unveiled statue in a gallery. I will never be a lady of honour. But you could come to see him, if you like; he is buried upright, in the silt. Dig down in the malarial tidewater.
There is another house, too, a sea away. Once that was my home, too, in a broad swathe of pretty Somerset, England. Once, I was Celia, only Celia, in our county’s days of gentry, I danced with a Cavalier. And have you heard of Celia in the poems of the time? Mr Ben Jonson said they were all for me. Mr Lovelace said I was his Althea, his Amarantha, sweet and fair; Mr Herrick dandled me at court and brought me perfumes as I grew older; said I was his Corinna, sweet as Flora.
Yes, gone. As am I. Once I was Celia, then came the wide sea, the tidewater and the forest. I am not the person I was, though I am not saying I shall not still visit.
Do not come into my house.
And I say do not but I only tempt. If you were not strong enough, it would eat you up. If it loved you, as I would, a paradise; a spell within these walls. Draw closer because it did not begin here, by tulip trees and persimmons. But instead in a green sward, a hollow, in Somerset in the old country.
Draw closer. I may kill, like the screaming monkey in Queen Mary’s gilded cage would do, but I shall not bite.