Ever since the Women’s March on Washington I’ve been thinking about the power of women in community.
I’ve been writing about strong, clever, resourceful women throughout my career. Even in the Owen Archer series I surround my male sleuth with strong women–Lucie Wilton, the Riverwoman Magda Digby, Bess Merchet, Dame Phillippa… But it wasn’t until I was writing the Margaret Kerr novels that I realized how much I believe women’s power lies in their wisdom about the importance of community–in the middle ages and today. That was Margaret’s Achilles heel–even before she left her home in Perth she had no such community. Gradually she learned to appreciate the help of her serving woman Celia, her mother Christiana, her friend Ada, and, as we left her, she was on her way to seek the help of her Great-Aunt Euphemia. Margaret’s path to wisdom and power.
In between writing about Margaret and creating Kate Clifford I became fascinated with the Beguine movement–communities of lay religious women. [See two guest posts about Beguines here and here.]
You will recall that toward the end of The Service of the Dead Kate’s mother, Eleanor, arrives in York in the company of three Beguines from Strasbourg. Eleanor returned when she did so that I might use her as the catalyst for Kate’s cathartic outburst at the end. The Beguines are merely her companions. But Dina, Clara, and Brigida move to center stage in A Twisted Vengeance. In the US and Canada it will be published in hardcover and ebook on 9 May. (And The Service of the Dead will come out in trade paperback.) Here’s a sneak preview of the further adventures of Kate Clifford & community.
York, second week in July, 1399
The terror of the dream never abated. She opened her eyes in the dark prison of her childhood bedchamber. Heard his ragged breathing, smelled his breath—cloying sweetness of wine, rancid stench of bile—as he leaned down, reaching for her, whispering of his need, his hunger. She opened her mouth to scream, but she was mute. She struggled to push him away, but her arms were limp, heavy, dead to her.
Why do you not strike him down, my Lord? How can you abide such abomination, my Savior? Are you not my Savior? Is he right, that I deserve this?
It is a dream, only a dream, now, tonight, it is truly only a dream, he is dead, he can no longer hurt me, it is a dream, wake up wake up wake up.
She sat up, panting, her shift clinging to her sweat-soaked body. A noise. Someone moving about on the other side of her door, in the kitchen. Outside her window it was the soft gray of a midsummer night. Who would be moving about the kitchen in the middle of the night? Why had Dame Eleanor lodged her here, across the garden from her sisters, all alone? But they did not know she was alone. They thought Nan, the serving maid, would be here. Perhaps it was only Nan she heard, returning early.
He had sworn that he would find her, rise from the grave and take her, that they were bound for eternity. Whoever it was, they were at the door. The dagger. She slipped it from beneath her pillow. The door creaked open. Not Nan—much too tall for Nan. A man’s breath, a man’s smell. He took a step in. She leapt from the bed, throwing herself on him, forcing him to fall backward into the kitchen. Stabbing him, stabbing, stabbing. Not speaking. Never speak. Never make a noise. He will kill me if I wake the others.
“God have mercy. Have mercy!” he wheezed.
She stopped. This voice was soft. Frightened. God forgive me. It is not him. Not Father.
She dropped her dagger in the doorway as she backed into her room. Heart pounding, fighting the fear and confusion clouding her mind, she dressed, stumbling in her haste. She must think what to do. Berend. He was strong and kind. He would help her. She would go through the gate to Dame Katherine’s kitchen and wake Berend.
She retrieved her dagger. Bloody. Slippery. Wiped it on her skirt. Tucked it in her girdle. Stepped to the door, lifting her skirts to step over his body. But there was no body. God help me!
A hand over her mouth. He spun her round and clutched her so tightly she felt his blood flowing, soaking the back of her gown, the warmth of it. She gagged on the sickly sweet smell of it, like her father’s wine-breath. He dragged her outside into the garden. The great wolfhounds began to bark. Salvation? She struggled, but he did not lose his grip; even when he stumbled he grasped her so tightly she could not breathe. Her feet skimmed the grass, the packed mud of the alley. I am dying.
A jolt. She was pulled free, falling forward.
“Run to the church.” It was the soldier who watched all night from the street. More than a soldier, a guardian angel. He kicked the wounded man in the stomach.
She curled over herself, gasping for breath.
“Get up. Run to the church. Do not stop. Do not look back.” He nudged her, gently. “Run!” Suddenly there were more men. They rushed at her savior.
She rose and ran, her breath a searing knife in her throat and chest, but she ran, ran for her life. She heard the men attacking the soldier, bone against flesh against bone. Surely an angel could not suffer mortal wounds. But she would pray for him. To the church across Castlegate. Door locked. Stumbling round to the side, where the sisters entered. Footsteps coming her way. She fled, and there it was, the door, opening, the candle by the lady altar. She crumpled to the floor, the cool tiles. She stretched out upon them, bloodied, cursed, saved.
If you’d like a chance to win one of three galleys of A Twisted Vengeance, sign up for my publisher’s giveaway on Goodreads (giveaway runs 7 Feb – 7 Mar).
I think you are perfectly on target about the need for community!
As to Beguines, I was so excited when they showed up at the end of Kate Clifford. Part of my job is to teach religion courses at a small liberal arts women’s college, and one of my regular rotation classes is Women Mystics in Medieval Europe. We do a section on the Beguines, and how they varied from geographical region to region. It is so interesting that these women formed independent communities away from the patriarchal dominance of the church, and the free form nature of these communities were so creative and empowering. It is also interesting to read between the lines with some of the writings left behind that these women dealt with personality conflicts just like we do today, and to try to figure out how they dealt with those issues. They feel so modern for me in numerous ways. Can’t wait for the next Kate Clifford!
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Thank you, Amy!
I really loved the character of Magda Digby; IMO, would have been very interesting to read about her younger years, about how she came to be the person she is.
One thing I was wondering is why does she always refer to herself in the third person? It’s a really peculiar (though charming) trait.
In The King’s Bishop I explored some of Magda’s background, but you’re right, it would be interesting to see more of it. She explains her third person speech to John Thoresby in A Vigil of Spies. I’ve been pondering whether she’d experiment with first person after his death. Haven’t decided.
I love her, too. She is always on my mind. Thanks for your note!
Ah yes, now I remember! You know, it’s a very common practice in Eastern philosophy to refer to oneself in the third person for exactly the same reason:
As for what will be after Thoresby’s death… On one hand, I wish she achieved inner peace and no longer felt guilt. On the other hand, it is a really endearing quirk, and I think she would lose a part of her charm if she spoke in the first person.
I know. I wonder how Alisoun would respond to a change. Thanks for the term–I’d never encountered the term, though I have come across the concept in Eastern philosophy.