necromancy: why, how, and why not to do it

Coincidentally, it’s just when the veil between the living and dead is at its thinnest that I passed the point in my book where the Papal Nuncio accuses Dee and Kelley of necromancy. Mind, they probably didn’t do it (or Dee didn’t–too goody goody for that), but why would anyone want to raise the dead, and how would they do it anyway?

Black adn white engraving of two men in a nighttime churchyard standing in a magic circle, a skeletal ghost before them.
Fanciful nineteenth century portrayal of “Edw[ar]d Kelly, a Magician. in the Act of invoking the Spirit of a Deceased Person” from Astrology, A New and Complete Illustration of the Occult Sciences by Ebenezer Sibly, M.D. F.R.H.S., Embellished with Curious Copper-Plates, London, 1806, courtesy Wikipedia

Technically early modern Christian necromancers weren’t trying to raise the dead–that was seen as something only God could do. No, they just conjured demons who looked like spirits, and used them for a variety of things including finding lost objects, telling the future, controlling other people, or creating illusions.

Kind of mundane, considering the spiritual sketchiness of necromancy and the sheer inconvenience of performing it. You had to consider magic circles, moon phases, and offerings before you even got to the incantations. Check out this bit from Reginald Scot’s 1584 best-seller “The Discoverie of Witchcraft”. Though Scot rejected the reality of witchcraft bits of it read like a how-to, with a surprisingly pious bent:

…I conjure thee spirit by the living God, the true God, and by
the holie God, and by their vertues and powers which have created
both thee and me, and all the world. I conjure thee by these
holie names of God, Tetragrmnmaton Adonay Algraniay
Saday Sabaoth Planaboth Craton Neupinaton…

…etc. What happened if you forgot or mispronounced a name isn’t recorded.

But why did Kelley perform necromancy, if he did it at all?

The story goes that long before he met Dee he was arrested in Walton on Dale for conjuring a spirit, but a local squire named Langton managed to get him released. Given that so much of Kelley’s history is legend I’m unsure how seriously to take this, and even the legend doesn’t have much about Kelley’s’ reasoning.

So I’m just making something up. It’s historical fiction, remember?

historical fiction: where the boys aren’t(?)

Evidently I’m writing a fantasy novel.

This is news to me.

via GIPHY

So how did this happen?

Of all the sessions I attended at the HNS conference last week, the one about male protagonists was the most surprising. As far back as 2015 I’d heard murmurings that my choice of a male protagonist was unusual but I didn’t realize just how unusual.

Industry logic goes like this: historical fiction is written primarily by and for women. Women prefer to read from the points of view of other women. Hence, a female protagonist is all but required in order to market a book as “historical fiction”*. Hence, having Edward Kelley as my protagonist creates a hurdle to publication, at least in this genre.

Of course, historical fictions with male protagonists do exist, though they’re often marketed as something else. This results in oddities like “Wolf Hall” being shelved in literary (even though Hilary Mantel clearly thinks of herself as a historical fiction writer) and books from the POV of a male spy having women on the covers to meet reader expectations.

Which makes little sense because readers don’t actually expect this. Anecdotes aren’t data but the panel attendees–men and women alike–enjoyed reading male protagonists and want to see more of them. Authors enjoy writing them, even though some editors warn them off (!).

The trope persists due to a risk-averse publishing industry based on what I suspect are very old stats. This does a disservice to readers and authors alike in terms of publishability and findability.

Interestingly, fantasy/sci-fi has the opposite problem. Which led to my asking whether I should pitch the Work in Progress as fantasy, given my male protagonist and fantastical elements. The panelists replied with a resounding “yes”.

So, shall I pitch as fantasy and betray the sisterhood/fall under histfic readers’ radar, or pitch as historical fiction and possibly never publish at all? It’s a conundrum. Fortunately, I find this funny as well as frustrating.

I invite readers to share their favorite genre-bending media (not just books! Movie, tv, comic, game, etc. recs are all welcome!), particularly historical fiction not marketed as such. How did you find it? Did you have trouble finding it?

*Not that historical fiction can’t be about men: it often is, just through the eyes of the women around them. The notion is that women don’t mind reading about men, they just don’t want to walk in their shoes.

biweekly links 12-14-2016

Queen Elizabeth I’s Vast Spy Network Was The First Surveillance State: repeats old myths about John Dee as the inspiration for 007 but the rest of the article is rock solid factual. I used Alford’s “The Watchers” as background for the “Dee/Kelley as spies” angle and discovered enough about intelligencer Charles Sledd to make him a well-rounded antagonist for my book.

Oil painting of dour Elizabethan man in dark clothes and stiffly starched ruff
Elizabeth I’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, attributed to John de Critz the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Pretty glum, no? He was probably only happy when fighting Spain and the Catholic Church.
Through foreign eyes: the forgotten ambassadors to the Tudor court: English espionage got organized under Liz but there was plenty of spy vs. spy at her dad’s court too. Diplomats spied on the king, courtiers, and each other, with varying degrees of success.

In the 16th Century, People Went Crazy for Portraits Made Up of Fruits and Veggies – delightful thumbnail sketch of Rudolf II fave Giuseppe Archimboldo and a nice selection of his proto-surrealist portraiture.

Why the Stone Age could be when Brits first brewed beer: hops only came in during the late medieval period but fermenting was going on long before that. Heather ale? Why not – evidently it has a long tradition in Scotland. Article links extensively to archaeologists’ CVs and publications, and even a few historically-inspired brews. Don’t you just love food archaeology?

the problem (and opportunity) of Joanna Kelley

You’d think that by this point in the book I’d have a stronger grip on all my characters.

On good days it’s almost like channeling. Edward Kelley’s con-artistry, Jane Dee’s frustration, and John Dee’s obsession all spring easily to mind at this point but Joanna Kelley eludes me.

Which is nonsensical because of all these historical figures I probably know the least about her and so have the most leave to make things up.

Dee didn’t have a strong opinion about her; Edward Kelley “loves her not, nay, I abhor her”; Jane Dee apparently took her side in arguments with Kelley. Charlotte Fell-Smith’s 1909 biography of Dee describes Joanna as “lively and docile” but Fell-Smith tended to speculate.

It’s not clear why Kelley married her – the “angels” ordered him to marry but didn’t specify a bride. Wooley suggests someone (who?) might have paid him marry her in order to legitimize children she had with an aristocratic lover; Bassnett argues she was the widow of a clerk named John Weston. It doesn’t seem she brought any status or money into the marriage. Only two things are clear: she was only 19 when she married Kelley and he didn’t like her.

Why would she marry someone like Kelley, a volatile man with few (legal) prospects who didn’t want to get married in the first place?

I’ve mixed bits and pieces from the scholarship for Joanna’s backstory, but even if I know how she got into the Dee/Kelley household I’m still not clear on how she manages once she’s there. Optimism and resilience would help her endure Kelley’s tempers. Smarts and adaptability wouldn’t hurt, given dangerous travel and domestic strife.

The idea of “Firefly”‘s cheerful engineer Kaylee Frye sprung to mind. A fictional sci-fi character may be an odd inspiration for an Elizabethan housewife but I can imagine that someone of Kaylee’s uncultured enthusiasm would charm everyone around her but get on grumpy Kelley’s last nerve.

Beaming girl in fluffy, ruffled dress.
I imagine Joanna being just this sweet and gauche when she comes to Mortlake for the first time. Less floofy dress though. The only linkable version of this pic I could find.

My hardest plot challenge of all is why does Kelley hate her so? No one else seems to. I’m considering several possibilities (no spoilers) but even at this late stage I’ve not got this crucial factor ironed out yet.

Maybe it’s difficult for me because while I know fear, anger, and obsession, I’m not exactly a ray of sunshine.

Fortunately I’ve completed the day job certification that ate most of my time for the past couple of months and am eager to get back to editing. Hopefully I’ll get into the zone and she’ll evolve organically out of rewrites.

References:

Bassnett, Susan. 2006. “Absent Presences: Edward Kelley’s Family in the Writings of John Dee.” In John Dee: Interdisciplinary Studies in English Renaissance Thought, 285–94. Dordrecht: Springer.

Wooley, Benjamin. 2001. The Queen’s Conjurer: The Science and Magic of Dr. John Dee, Advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. Henry Holt and Co.

biweekly links 6-15-2016

Dee, Kelley, and – Shakespeare?

When writing about lesser-known historical figures it’s tempting to insert some “stars” to keep the reader’s attention. Dee and Kelley moved in exalted circles, so I have plenty of courtiers, alchemists, nobles and other characters to play with if I so choose.

I didn’t expect William Shakespeare could be one of them.

While it’s not a stretch to suggest that the Bard was aware of Dee – many sources agree he likely based “The Tempest”‘s Prospero on him – it didn’t occur to me that he might have known him personally until I found sources that propose that Shakespeare was a spy working under the name “Francis Garland, he acted as Dee’s courier, and witnessed one of Kelley’s transmutations.

Sound implausible? I thought so too. Only Burns and Bridges have put forth a connection between the three men and even they admit it sounds farfetched.

But consider:

  • Dee’s mentions of Garland in his diaries correspond with Shakespeare’s “lost years”.
  • Acquaintance with Dee (and his connections) would explain Shakespeare’s apparently sudden popularity with Elizabeth’s court in 1593.
  • Kelley dedicates his alchemical poem “Concerning the Philosopher’s Stone” to one “G. S. Gent.”, and Shakespeare’s Stratford-on-Avon baptismal record lists him as “Gulielmus Shaksper”.

Burns asserts that Shakespeare’s plays show familiarity with alchemical imagery and secrets; I’m no expert on Shakespeare or alchemy so I don’t feel competent to judge. She also suggests that Kelley reference to G. S. as his “especiall good Friend” might mean Shakespeare was Kelley’s student and thus an alchemist himself – again I can’t say.

Bridges theorizes a connection between Kelley and Shakespeare’s Dark Lady in his text for exhibit at the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians of Old Prague. I still can’t decide. Given multiple suggested identities for the Dark Lady, maybe one could fit. Somehow, it still smells like one connection too many.

I find the idea that “Francis Garland” was a spy the easiest to believe. Sixteenth century travel was dangerous, difficult, and rare. Any mobile, learned man would be a catch for Burleigh and Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s spymasters. If Garland was a courier this reinforces the notion that Dee and Kelley were spies as well – or perhaps being spied upon, given Burleigh’s attempts to lure Kelley back to England to make gold for his queen.

All tempting to play with, but Shakespeare’s not going to cameo in my book. I’m not writing a sixteenth century spy thriller (though that would be awesome). Also I’m in the process of deciding which secondary characters stay and which go – it’s no time to add more!

What do you think – was the Bard a spy? If so, for who and why? Or is this all wishful thinking? As ever, I’d love to hear your take.

References:

Burns, T. (2008). Francis Garland, William Shakespeare, and John Dee’s Green Language. Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition2(15). Retrieved from http://www.jwmt.org/v2n15/garland.html

Campbell, J. S. (2009). The Alchemical Patronage of Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley (Awarded Research Masters Thesis). Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand. Retrieved from http://researcharchive.vuw.ac.nz/handle/10063/1269.

Vincent Bridges. (n.d.). [Mp3]. Retrieved from http://occultofpersonality.net/vincent-bridges/

 

Trebon and back again – an ugly American’s tale

I made one trip out of Prague for the book. It went…ok. If nothing else I learned what not to do next time.

When Emperor Rudolf kicked Dee and Kelley out of Prague his second in command William of Rozmberk gave them refuge in the southern town of Trebon. Most of Kelley’s alchemical successes and the infamous wife-swapping took place while they lived in Trebon Castle and a lot of the 16th century building remains. Of course I had to see it. I’d heard great things about the Czech Republic’s train system and it was only a 2 hour ride – what could go wrong?

Heh heh heh…

First off I severely overestimated my understanding of the train schedule. Prague to Trebon looks easy until I discovered I had to change trains: I had to know both my destination and my terminus, and ideally be able to pronounce both.

Which was my second mistake: I can’t speak Czech. It’s my own damn fault; save a few important words (Praha = Prague, knihy = book) I relied on everyone to speak English (ugly American, me).

My third bad assumption tied into the second: I was under the impression Trebon was a sizeable town and, therefore, full of English speakers. We got off the train to discover it was a one-taxi town – and the taxi driver spoke German.

The upshot was that we missed our first train and while we caught our second we were rushed and highly dependent on our phones’ ham-fisted Google translations.

So, yeah, not my finest travel moment.

I went on the only tour available in our short time-frame – Czech, with English handout. Though they didn’t permit interior photography (the Czech site has a nice photogallery) I got a handle on the smaller scale of a country palace. To my surprise the tour mentioned Dee and Kelley – there’s even a room set up as a makeshift alchemical lab.

Evidently there’s also a medieval-themed tavern named for Kelley on-site, but we didn’t have time to stop in. A mile sprint got us back to the station just in time to catch our ride back to Prague.

In lieu of Trebon Castle pix, have this one of the Rozmberk Palace in the Prague Castle complex. The Rozmberks scaled this one for grand city living.

Interior courtyard of Rozmberk Palace, Prague
The interior courtyard of Rozmberk Palace in Prague. It’s been a noble’s palace, school for unmarried noblewomen, and is currently the home of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

biweekly links 1-13-2016

Happy new year all!

a tale of two alchemy museums part 2: Museum of Alchemists and Magicians of Old Prague

If Speculum Alchemiae provides an example of a real alchemy lab, the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians of Old Prague reflects the fantasy. And that’s not a bad thing.

This former residence of Edward Kelley’s in the Donkey in the Cradle house (many of Prague’s older buildings have names based on their “signs”) placed him conveniently near the royal court in Hradčany (Castle Town). The tower and its spiral staircase date from the sixteenth century but I’m not sure about the rest of the house.

spiral staircase
I ran into a lot of spiral staircases in Prague, but this was the tightest, steepest, and oldest

My chief interest was the top floor of the tower where Kelley allegedly had his alchemical lab. Though the reproduction of his study seemed plausible I doubt any of the items were original.

reconstruction of Edward Kelley's study near a window with candle, desk, velvet upholstered chair and sideboard with goblet
Dee’s diaries suggest Kelley enjoyed the finer things – velvet chair and wine goblet fit right in

Explanatory text describes Kelley’s life and sticks to the known facts – mostly. The writer, Vincent Bridges, suggested an association between Kelley, Shakespeare as a spy (?) and the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets. He’s one of only two scholars I’ve found that espouse this notion so I don’t know what to make of it, but there you are.

Included are wax models of historical figures, most notably a flying Rudolf II (?) and one of Kelley himself, complete with (alleged) wooden leg:

Back of Kelley wax mannequin, showing wooden leg

The “lab” got still more theatrical as I went along, including artfully arranged broken glass representing a lab accident, a homunculus, planets on strings, and a 6 foot long bellows.

6 foot long bellows
Not sure these existed but it’s awfully impressive, isn’t it?

I can’t finish without mentioning Kellyxir, the alchemy-themed bar attached to the museum. Winding glassware adorns the ceiling and “Mrs. Kelley’s” menu includes alcoholic and non- “elixirs” with names that translate loosely to “wonder medicine of the mountains”, “the key to awakening” and the like. I had something called “bear milk” with rum which was quite pleasant. It was a fun afternoon.

ceiling of Kellyxir alchemical pub with glassware and tubing
Alchemical ceiling of Kellyxir, courtesy Charlotte Dries

With its fanciful (?) stories and funhouse trappings the Museum of Magicians and Alchemists of Old Prague has as much to do with real alchemy as Hollywood does with real life. But it works. The historical Edward Kelley was something of a showman so I think he’d approve of black-lit magical circles and flying emperors in his old home!

 

chasing Edward Kelley – Prague

I’ve been away.

Prague's astronomical clock
The famous astronomical clock

Two years and one first draft later, I finally made my long-coveted research trip to Prague.

I’d wanted to go since I started researching the book 2 years ago. Turns out many of Dee and Kelley’s old Bohemian haunts still exist and, as they say, there’s nothing like the real thing. Besides, any excuse to travel!

I did so much that the past 2 weeks feel like a month, but in a good way. Despite my efforts to not to do ALL THE THINGS at once I couldn’t resist the Prague Castle after dark walking tour my second night.

For three hours our guide took us through the huge castle complex and regaled us with stories of weird Prague: the golem, the imprisoned violinist, Tycho Brahe and his metal nose. Normally crowded with tourists, at night it’s fairly empty, and the cold and rain made it even more evocative.

Golden Lane at night
The Golden Lane at night, by Charlotte Dries. Imagine an astronomer on the roof, an alchemist toiling away underground…

And the view:

Prague skyline
Prague from the Castle, by Charlotte Dries

Historic Prague is geographically small – most of it is visible in the picture above – but so much is packed into those endlessly winding little streets!

More in the coming weeks: two very different alchemical labs, a gorgeous library, Renaissance science bros. But to keep this book related:

White Tower, Golden Lane
The White Tower in Golden Lane, one of the many places Edward Kelley was imprisoned.

Special thanks to my friend Charlotte Dries, who had the good sense to have a quality camera with her at all times!