We are really enjoying the new trend of controversial historical figures being featured on TV, such as Showtime's The Tudors and The Borgias. But we aren't just seeing this on screen, writers have also been delving into the lives of the rich and privileged. This month author Sarah Bower caught our attention with her latest historical fiction which was rated an RT Top Pick. Today we interview the author about her novel, Sins of the House of Borgia. And make sure to enter our giveaway to win Bower's book at the end of the interview!
Sins of the House of Borgia follows La Violante, who begins her life as Esther, a Jewish girl who becomes entangled in the Borgia court politics at her father’s insistence. Which of Esther’s character traits does her the most good in her new life, and which ends up being the most harmful?
I think the answer to both halves of this question is the same. It is Esther’s stubbornness which keeps her alive during the flight from Spain and fortifies her at various stages in her career at the Borgia’s court. It is also her stubbornness which causes her to stay in love with Cesare even when all the signs indicate here feelings aren’t reciprocated and she knows there can be no future in it. She is, of course, harmed and demeaned by this but triumphs in the end by having the determination to carve out a new and independent life for herself. Within the constraints of a patriarchal society, she’s a girl who makes her own decisions and sticks to them, for good or ill.
Esther becomes known as Violante while she serves as a lady in waiting to the famous Lucrezia and is the lover of Lucrezia’s brother, Cesare. What aspect of the Borgia siblings does she find most unsettling?
There’s a moment, early in the novel, just before Lucrezia and her household leave Rome for Ferrara, when Violante is watching Cesare and Lucrezia together and she tells us this: "…they both looked directly at me, their eyes moving in such unison you would think they had rehearsed it, their expressions so alike the one might have been copied from the other." It is this almost telepathic relationship which seems to exist between Cesare and Lucrezia which most disturbs her – as, indeed, it did many of their contemporaries. Violante becomes caught up in their relationship in ways she doesn’t understand for a long time, and is alternately flattered and troubled by this. You could say it defines her life, but in some ways, her role also defines theirs.
Sins of the House of Borgia has been praised for bringing the atmosphere Papal and Ferrara courts to life. What are three essential tips for staying in power at one of these courts?
Firstly, let me say how gratifying it is to be praised. Novelists work away in isolation and we can never be absolutely sure we’ve succeeded in our intentions until we find out what readers think of our efforts. As for tips on staying in power in a Renaissance court, not sure I’m the right person to ask! I suspect I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes! Perhaps the best person to go to for an answer to this question is Machiavelli, whose The Prince, is still one of the best handbooks on political power and was, of course, largely inspired by his observations of Cesare Borgia when he was Florentine ambassador to Cesare’s court. He stresses the need to win and keep the favour of Fortune. So, good luck would probably be my first tip. Knowing when to speak and when to keep silent would be my second, and running a comprehensive and reliable spy network would be my third. It always helps to know what your enemies are planning before they know it themselves.
The age you write about was one of glamour and those in Esther’s circle are incredibly wealthy, what is the passage about their world that you were most excited to write about?
Oh, where to begin? I just love the excess, the bling. Some of the accounts of Lucrezia’s dress and jewelry defy belief. For her first meeting with her father-in-law, Ercole d’Este, Isabella Gonzaga reports she "wore a robe of drawn gold garnished with crimson satin…and a cloak slashed with mulberry satin lined with sable, and a necklace of large pearls…a gold headdress." And this is just a "casual" encounter, not even her formal entry into Ferrara. We’re told she also had different harnesses for her horses to match her clothes. When she did make her formal entry into the duchy, her husband wore "a tunic of grey velvet all covered with scales of beaten gold, a black velvet beret…with laces of beaten gold and white plumes and" – the piece de resistence – "short boots of soft grey skin made from unborn calves." Rappers and Hollywood stars have nothing on the top people of the Italian Renaissance! I also love the fact that nothing was impossible – if you wanted a mechanical representation of the Ascension you could have one, if you wanted little gold ships full of salt to "sail" around the dinner table on rails, no problem. Fabulous.
Are you watching the Showtime series The Borgias? If so, what’s the biggest difference between their Borgias and yours?
The Showtime series doesn’t air here in the UK until July, but I’m looking forward to it immensely. I have seen a few trailers and think it looks sumptuous. The big difference between the early episodes and my novel is that my novel is set after the time when the young Borgias’ Roman lifestyle attracted so much gossip about them. It looks at Cesare and Lucrezia as they put aside youthful frivolities and grow up. That said, one thing I really like about the Showtime series is that it has cast young actors in the roles of Pope Alexander’s children. It’s easy to forget how young they were at the height of their notoriety. Lucrezia was first married at thirteen, and Cesare was made a cardinal at eighteen. Both died in their thirties. When writing my book, I aimed to combine a sense of their extreme youth with the responsibilities they had because I think this is something which is quite difficult for us to understand nowadays.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing a story peppered with so many famous historical personalities?
It’s twofold. Firstly, you want to do justice to them as characters, and when faced with such larger-than-life figures as Pope Alexander or Isabella Gonzaga that’s a tall order! You also have to strike a balance between your personal interpretation of your protagonists, the characters you’re closest to, and what history tells us about them. You have to decide which characteristics to play up and which to subdue. The second challenge is to make sure your plot tallies with the historical record about where certain people were and what they were doing at any given time. On occasion, I have to confess I ‘bent’ the historical record ever so slightly to achieve this, but I avoided doing anything which would undermine the authenticity of my novel.
In your opinion, which modern family (or group) is the most similar to the Borgias?
A lot of people have drawn parallels between the great Renaissance families and the Mafia but, when Gianni Versace died, and I was watching his sister, Donatella, at his funeral, I thought there were strong parallels between those two and Cesare and Lucrezia, the way they operated as a team, the blurred boundary between the personal and professional relationship.
Can you share some details with the RT readers about your next project?
Next year, Sourcebooks will be publishing my novel about the making of the Bayeux Tapestry, The Needle In The Blood. I’m currently working on a contemporary mystery story set on the coast of Norfolk, where I live. The research is a lot easier!
GIVEAWAY ALERT: Three lucky readers will each win a copy of Sarah Bower's Sins of the House of Borgia. To enter, leave a comment telling us what historical figure you would love to read more about or email your comment here. Winners will be chosen Monday, May 30!
BLOG UPDATE 6/1/2011: And the winners are ... Molly, Sarah W. and Sawcat!