Penman, Sharon Kay
Penman, Sharon Kay
(Sharon K. Penman)
PERSONAL: Born in New York, NY. Education: Attended Penn State University; attended Louisiana State University; University of Texas, B.A., 1969; Rutgers University, J.D., 1974.
CAREER: Writer; teacher in parochial school, Hawaii; became tax and corporate attorney.
AWARDS, HONORS: Edgar Award nominee for best first mystery, Mystery Writers of America, for The Queen's Man: A Medieval Mystery.
The Sunne in Splendour, Holt (New York, NY), 1982.
Here Be Dragons, Holt (New York, NY), 1985.
Falls the Shadow, Holt (New York, NY), 1988.
The Reckoning, Holt (New York, NY), 1991.
When Christ and His Saints Slept, Holt (New York, NY), 1995.
The Queen's Man: A Medieval Mystery, Holt (New York, NY), 1996.
Cruel as the Grave: A Medieval Mystery, Holt (New York, NY), 1998.
Time and Chance, Putnam (New York, NY), 2002.
Dragon's Lair: A Medieval Mystery, Putnam (New York, NY), 2003.
Prince of Darkness: A Medieval Mystery, Putnam (New York, NY), 2005.
SIDELIGHTS: Sharon Kay Penman's historical thrillers have won her critical accolades as well as a devoted readership. Her 1982 literary debut, The Sunne in Splendour, is set, as are nearly all of her works, in medieval England—an era, as she ably shows, that was marked by royal treacheries and the beginnings of a truly urban, democratic civilization. In her subsequent novels, Penman creates memorable characters from several social strata, and strives to show how "history," as chronicled—the foreign alliances, the intrigues at court—affected ordinary lives.
Penman herself believes that the lessons of her novels are timeless: "I believe that human nature has not changed much over the centuries," the author once remarked. "The trappings of civilization vary from one age to another, as do beliefs and superstitions. But the core of human emotions and needs remains constant, and I attempt to convey that in my novels. Since I usually am writing of kings and queens and those who wielded power, the abuse and corruption of power also figures prominently in my writing."
Writing was a second career for Penman, after several long detours. But, she recalled in the same interview, that there were several signs in her youth that augured well for a career in letters. "I was born in New York City and grew up in Atlantic City, New Jersey in its pre-gambling days. My parents had both been compelled by circumstances to interrupt their schooling and were self-educated; they did their best to instill a love of learning in their children."
Penman's ability to create scenes and drama dating back nearly nine centuries was already displaying itself during her childhood. "I had an active imaginary life," she once commented. "I 'published' a newspaper, complete with editorials and cartoons and advice columnists. My brother and I created various make-believe worlds in the course of our childhood, including an island kingdom like Monaco, the Wild West, a mystical place called Dogtown, and later on, our own horse racing system, in which each horse's speed was determined by his own deck of cards…. I was a shy child out in the real world, but my imaginary world was ablaze with color and light and possibilities."
A love of history and its real-life impact was also apparent early on, as Penman once recalled. "I cannot remember a time when I didn't love to listen to my mother's stories of her childhood in Kentucky." Bookworm tendencies segued into her first creative forays. "I think I learned to read before I actually entered school and my mother taught me, or at least laid the groundwork," Penman said. "The first book I owned was Black Beauty. When I was about seven, I wrote my first story, about a horse named Queenie, complete with illustrations and a happy ending, of course. My earliest memories are of begging my mother for 'one more' bedtime story. She liked to recount the time when I was given a choice between a Golden Book and a candy bar; I was about four at the time and told her that I'd rather have the book, for books last and the candy would soon be gone."
Penman came of age in a more innocent era. "I was an A student, most of the time. I did the typical teenage things. I liked to go to movies and hang out with friends; I was an avid reader and loved my pets and had a crush on Ricky Nelson and Elvis Presley." She claims to have felt the pull of her true calling early on in life. "I always wanted to write. I started a novel when I was about ten, got about two hundred pages into it, too, before it trailed off. I wrote another novel in my teens, which mercifully has vanished from the earth; I don't think I'd be up to rereading it. I never expected to make a living as a writer, though; I guess I'd read too many accounts of starving artists in their garrets. At one time I thought about becoming a veterinarian, but this was a long time ago and I didn't have the desire or the fortitude to be a pioneer or blaze new trails."
Instead Penman cut several trails between Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and the South. "I enjoyed college life and bounced around from school to school like a ping pong ball. My freshman year was at Penn State, my sophomore year at the University of Texas, my junior year at Louisiana State University in New Orleans, and my final year back at Texas, where I graduated with a B.A. in history. I soon discovered that a history degree didn't help much in paying the rent, and within a few years, I'd gone back to school—this time law school. I have a J.D. degree from Rutgers School of Law and was licensed to practice in California and New Jersey."
Penman's years as a corporate and tax attorney were abysmal ones. "I considered the practice of law as penance for my sins, still feel reprieved all these years later," she told Authors and Artists for Young Adults. On the other hand, her career as a writer seemed doomed before it even started. "I began my novel about Richard III," as Penman once recalled, "which would eventually be The Sunne in Splendour, in my junior year at Louisiana State University in New Orleans. Four years later, I had about five hundred pages completed. It was the autumn of 1972 and I was beginning my second year of law school. The manuscript disappeared from my car during a move to my new apartment, and to this day I do not know what became of it. Unfortunately, I had only one copy, too. For the next six years, I was unable to write; it was as if the well had gone dry. I would try periodically, with no success. And then one February weekend in 1978, I sat down at my typewriter (I know, that sounds almost as quaint as using a quill pen) and this time the words began to come and they didn't dry up. That summer I received a modest windfall and decided to gamble it all on the book, quitting my job and moving to England to research my novel. Several months later I came back and began to rewrite The Sunne in Splendour in earnest. It took me three years and my timing was perfect; I finished the book just as my money ran out.
"I was fortunate enough to have a good friend who knew an editor at McCall's magazine, and she contacted him on my behalf. He asked to read my manuscript, agreeing to recommend an agent if he liked what he read. He did and put me in touch with Molly Friedrich of the Aaron M. Priest Literary Agency. Molly sent my uncompleted manuscript to Marian Wood, an editor at Henry Holt. Marian wrote a wonderful editorial letter in which she dissected the book's weaknesses while indicating that it showed enough promise to deserve encouragement. I then revised the book and resubmitted it the following year.
"I think I was very lucky to find a publisher willing to take a chance on a 1,238-page manuscript by an unknown author about a long dead English king. The loss of my [manuscript] was very traumatic, but for me, the publication process went very smoothly, indeed."
Published by Holt in 1982, The Sunne in Splendour revolves around one of the most controversial rulers in English history: King Richard III. Immortalized by Shakespeare, Richard was the last Plantagenet king of England, and his 1485 death in battle ended a long conflict between two noble factions, the Yorks and the Lancasters, that was known as the War of the Roses. Penman depicts Richard III in a heroic light, supporting his brother, Edward IV, in his struggles to maintain power. After his brother's death, Richard first allied with his nephew the heir, Edward V, but then ordered both the twelve-year-old and his younger brother to be incarcerated. They were declared illegitimate heirs to the throne, and vanished. Historians presumed they were slain by those loyal to Richard.
In Penman's hands, Richard's story is one haunted by romantic tragedy: his brother forbade him to marry the woman he loved, Anne Neville, who belonged, by accident of birth, to the enemy camp. The novel also portrays Richard's treacheries in a more forgiving light, showing that they were very much indeed a part of the times. The Sunne in Splendour was praised by an essayist in Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers, who described it as "a most impressive undertaking for a first work. Exceedingly readable, obviously well researched, this major novel of the life of Richard III brings the fifteenth century vividly to life." The essayist noted that its portrayal of Richard as a tragic, yet compellingly heroic figure was "not a fresh interpretation of Richard's participation in historical events, but what makes it particularly credible is the way in which all the characters are brought alive, making this complex period in history more readily understandable."
Penman next launched a series set in twelfth-century England, a few generations back from Richard's era. Here Be Dragons, published in 1985, centers upon King John, the disliked regent on whom a group of English barons foisted the Magna Carta in 1215. The document, the most significant in British constitutional history, guaranteed them certain rights and protected citizens from autocratic rule. In Penman's tale, John is a beset king who struggled to maintain a respect for the law in his realm, hence the struggles with the determined barons. More integral to the plot, however, is the story of the king's vassal, a Welsh boy named Llewelyn ab Iowerth. Llewelyn returns to Wales and launches a civil war with the aim of keeping this corner of the British Isles free from royal English rule—an act of rebellion that earns him the enmity of his former master.
John's illegitimate daughter, Joanna, also plays a central role in the drama. She is hidden from the public eye until the age of five, then brought to the king's court and thoroughly indulged. Ten years later, John arranges a match between her and Llewelyn, and reluctantly she leaves the shelter of the court for the northern part of Wales, which Llewelyn controls. A love blossoms, but it only exacerbates the conflict between her father and her husband. The Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers essay noted that here, as elsewhere, Penman does not fall prey to "the common pitfall" in writing historical novels—that of unconvincing dialogue. "The speech of Penman's characters is informal (but not too colloquial) twentieth century, with an occasional slight stiffness which conveys to us that we are in fact in the thirteenth or the fifteenth century."
As Penman's fiction recounts, another key figure in the power struggle over Wales was the Earl of Leicester, also known as Lord Simon de Montfort. He hailed from a solid French family, but possessed neither lands nor title. Ambition propelled him forward all the way to the court of Henry III, John's son, where he and the monarch's sister, Nell, fell in love and wed. The match caused a scandal, for Nell, the Countess of Pembroke, had taken a vow of chastity after being widowed at the age of fifteen. Montfort had originally convinced Henry, in 1261, to accept the Provisions of Oxford, a governmental reform plan that limited the king's ability to tax his subjects. Three years later, Henry repealed the Provisions, and Montfort led an armed rebellion against him. These events are chronicled in Penman's 1988 novel, Falls the Shadow, which concludes with Montfort's death on the battlefield of Evesham.
Penman's The Reckoning concludes her trilogy about Wales. As it opens, Prince Llewelyn has been imprisoned for life, and in the outside world a truce is forged by the marriage of Ellen, cousin to Edward I of England, and a de Montfort daughter. A Publishers Weekly review described its author as "a gifted storyteller who understands both the circumstances that bred character in the often barbarous yet ostentatiously devout Middle Ages."
Penman's next work, When Christ and His Saints Slept, appeared in 1995. Here, she travels back even further in English history, to the beginnings of the Plantagenet dynasty. The work opens in 1135, about seventy years after William the Conqueror landed in Britain with troops from France, went to battle with King Harold, killed the monarch, and took the throne for himself. Penman's plot centers upon two subsequent rivals for the English crown: Maud, daughter of William's son, Henry I, and her cousin Stephen of Blois, also a grandchild of William the Conqueror. Henry I was father to twenty-three children, but only two were born inside a legal marital union: William, who drowns, and Maud, sometimes called Matilda. As a mere child, Maud is sent to the Continent to marry a German prince who became the Holy Roman emperor, but after his death, wed, in 1128, Geoffrey of Anjou. After her father's 1135 death, a power struggle for the throne erupts, and Maud's husband is determined to win her the crown.
When Christ and His Saints Slept also involves Maud's half-brother, Robert, earl of Gloucester, who allies with her, but the idea of a queen presents some problems in England. She is forced to take the title "Lady of the English," and for seven years attempts to establish her right to rule, but finally in 1148 allows her son, Henry II, to become king. This was the Plantagenet who wed Eleanor of Aquitaine, a woman who figures more prominently in Penman's novel Time and Chance. Brad Hooper, reviewing When Christ and His Saints Slept in Booklist, stated that "this sprawling historical novel nonetheless demonstrates a keen understanding of its time and place." A Publishers Weekly critique echoed the sentiment, commending the author's skill in delivering "a most persuasive and moving account" of a complex period in English history, and hailed it as another "magnificent combination of history and humanity that Penman's readers have come to expect."
Penman's first foray into the mystery genre came with The Queen's Man: A Medieval Mystery, published by Holt in 1996. The work was nominated for an Edgar Award for best first mystery from the Mystery Writers of America. Its murder and political intrigue take place in 1193, when a young squire in the cathedral town of Winchester, Justin de Quincy, learns that his real father is a prominent bishop.
Justin was a foundling, and he believed for years that the esteemed cleric provided for him out of a sense of charity. When he learns otherwise, he confronts the holy man, then leaves Winchester abruptly, determined to find his fortune in the more riotous streets of London. On the way, however, Justin witnesses an assault on a goldsmith named Gervase Fitz Randolph. He steps in to help, but it is already too late, and before expiring Gervase asks Justin to take a letter concealed in his clothing and deliver it to Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Eleanor has already been involved in numerous intrigues, and even allied with her sons, Richard I and John—who would later sign the Magna Carta—in an attempt to seize power from their father, Henry II. As The Queen's Man opens, Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionhearted, has disappeared at sea on his way home from a crusade to seize the Holy Land. Meanwhile, the younger brother John is scheming to take throne for himself, and appears to be allying with France in his quest. Justin delivers the letter Gervase was carrying, which informs the queen that Richard is indeed alive. Mystified, Eleanor realizes that someone near her court may have wanted Gervase dead, and entrusts Justin with the task of solving the murder.
Justin's sleuthing reveals a raft of dysfunction within the affluent Fitz Randolph clan, and takes him to quarters of London that even then were dens of iniquity. He is aided by two police personnel—Luke de Marston, the Hampshire undersheriff from Winchester, and a London constable named Sergeant Jonas. "A graceful style, plus a plot rich in local color, puts this among the most attractive by far of the recent spate of mysteries set in medieval times," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Booklist's Emily Melton praised "Penman's authentic period details, larger-than-life characters, and fast-paced plot." A Publishers Weekly assessment termed Justin a "beguiling" hero, and hailed The Queen's Man as an "energetic and adroitly plotted" first novel in the series with "action so lively and unpredictable, that readers will cheer Justin's return in further adventures."
Justin's adventures continue in Cruel as the Grave: A Medieval Mystery, Penman's next novel. Here, Justin investigates two mysteries: the whereabouts of Richard the Lionhearted, who is supposedly being held hostage somewhere in Austria by the Holy Roman emperor, and a local murder. Eleanor is serving as her son's regent, while John plots with France still to take the throne for himself. Eleanor attempts to raise the ransom money to free Richard, but cannot do so until the civil unrest in England is quelled, for John has barricaded himself inside Windsor Castle. The queen sends Justin to negotiate with her renegade son. The second mystery involves a young Welsh girl named Melangell. The daughter of a peddler, she was found murdered, and Justin's help in solving the case is requested by a neighbor with family ties to the two prime suspects, a pair of brothers from a well-to-do family. A Publishers Weekly reviewer stated that the author "ably links two main story lines," and though the reviewer noted that the novel was not as rich in "the depth and detail of" some of her previous works, "it delivers atmosphere, plotting and nicely modulated characters."
Cruel as the Grave won rave reviews from other quarters. Melton, in her Booklist review, commended "Penman's clear prose" as well as "the skill with which she brings the politics, people, and ambiance of medieval England alive" in the novel. School Library Journal critic Molly Connally predicted that young readers "will find this tale of intrigue in the Queen's court and the streets of London both entertaining and enlightening."
Penman has continued to chronicle Justin's investigations in a growing series of "Medieval Mysteries." The next volume, Dragon's Lair: A Medieval Mystery, takes place in 1193. Part of the ransom money Eleanor has raised is stolen, and Justin travels to Wales to try to recover it. At that time Wales was still largely wild, and Englishmen were not particularly welcome there, making Justin's job particularly difficult. Meanwhile, John continues to plot to take over the throne from his still-imprisoned brother Richard, adding another layer of intrigue to the conspiracies that Justin must investigate. This installment in the series also won praise from critics. A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that Penman's "familiarity with Cheshire and Wales is evident in her descriptions of the terrain and verdure," while a Kirkus Reviews critic described the book as "a polished and absorbing historical mystery."
The next book in the series, Prince of Darkness: A Medieval Mystery, sees Justin travel to France at the request of Claudine, the mother of his child. Claudine, Justin discovers, has become an ally of John, and she summoned him to help John prove that a letter accusing him of plotting murder against Richard is a forgery. Justin is initially furious at Claudine's scheming, but he comes to realize that helping John could be in the Queen's best interest. Like the previous books in the series, Margaret Flanagan commented in Booklist, Prince of Darkness is "another delightful blend of mayhem, murder, and history." And, once again, Penman's extensive research is evident; as Francisca Goldsmith wrote in the School Library Journal, "the historical detail is scrupulously accurate without being presented as a history lesson."
Penman returned to the characters she first introduced in When Christ and His Saints Slept for 2002's Time and Chance, a second installment in the planned trilogy. In this novel, Henry Plantagenet has become king of England and is married to Eleanor of Aquitaine. As Henry II comes into his own as a leader, he relies both on his wife and on his trusted adviser Thomas Becket for advice. But when Henry appoints Becket the archbishop of Canterbury, Becket becomes a staunch defender of the Church and its power. The archbishop's stance brings him into direct conflict with Henry II's political aims. When Becket is murdered, the blame falls on the king. Penman surrounds the central power struggle between the king and the archbishop with subplots involving the relationship between Henry, Eleanor, and Henry's mistress, Rosamund Clifford; as well as Henry's (ultimately successful) efforts to ensure the survival of the kingdom for his sons. Reviewing the novel for Booklist, Margaret Flanagan called the plot "authentically detailed and artfully crafted," and praised Penman's "remarkable ability to communicate both the thoughts and the feelings of her real-life characters sympathetically." While a Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that Penman's story "lacks animation," a Kirkus Reviews contributor found the book "perfect for fans of battles lost and won, in the field and in the boudoir, by a vivid cast of characters doing their best to make history live."
Penman once revealed some of the process in creating her complex, richly atmospheric plots. "With my historical novels, I begin with a road map since I am writing of people who once lived and events that actually happened. Of course sometimes that map takes me places I'd rather not go; happy-ever-after endings were in as short supply in the Middle Ages as they are in our time. With my mysteries, I think of a crime, and then take it from there!
"I do considerable research since I am writing of a bygone time. I go to England and Wales as often as I can, as it helps for me to visit the scenes I am writing about. By now I have an excellent medieval library of my own, but I also make use of the University of Pennsylvania library, and when I am in the United Kingdom, I use the Reading Room of the British Library and the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. I also make extensive use of local reference libraries."
About the writing process itself, Penman once stated that she "can only write at home. I can do the research on my trips abroad, but the actual writing waits until I return home. I have been blessed in that I am able to write full time, so I've been spared the difficulty of trying to balance 'outside' work and my writing."
She admitted that her novels appealed to teen readers, but as she once said, "I never did decide to write for children. In fact, I was very surprised—although delighted—when my first mystery, The Queen's Man, was chosen as one of the best books of the year for young adult readers. The youngest reader that I am aware of was a ten-year-old boy I met in Shrewsbury, England; I also corresponded with a twelve-year-old girl from Maine at one time. My oldest-known reader was a delightful woman who wrote to me from California that she was ninety-three and hoped to live long enough to read my upcoming novel, The Reckoning! I am happy to report that she achieved that goal."
Some of what Penman writes about is known from historical documents, but other parts of her novels—especially those regarding the personal lives of the royals—must be imagined almost entirely. Richard's purported romance with Anne Neville, for instance, exists mostly in rumor. But Penman states that in writing her works, she strives to maintain a sense of accuracy where she can. "I try to be honest with my readers; if I have to take any liberties with known facts, I make sure to mention it in my Author's Note. Obviously, a novel is by its very nature a work of the imagination, but I believe a historical novel requires a sound factual foundation if the structure is to survive."
When asked what she hopes her readers might learn from her works, Penman once said that "I hope that I am opening a window to the past for my readers, and that they will finish one of my novels wanting to know more about the men and women of the medieval world. I attempt to recreate a time in which much seemed alien to our modern sensibilities, a time in which people believed that demons lurked in the dark, that destiny was determined by blood, that change was to be feared and man was born to sin. But it was also a time in which people loved and hated and grieved as they do today. Children were born and cherished and lost and mourned. Marriages endured or soured and friendships thrived. Ideally, a reader of one of my books will experience a sense of wonderment on one page, a chill on another, and a jolt of familiar recognition upon the next one!"
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 43, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 2002.
Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers, 3rd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1994.
Booklist, March 1, 1995, Brad Hooper, review of When Christ and His Saints Slept, p. 1140; November 1, 1996, Emily Melton, review of The Queen's Man: A Medieval Mystery, p. 483; October 15, 1998, Emily Melton, review of Cruel as the Grave: A Medieval Mystery, p. 406; February 15, 2002, Margaret Flanagan, review of Time and Chance, p. 993; April 15, 2005, Margaret Flanagan, review of Prince of Darkness: A Medieval Mystery, p. 1436.
Books, September, 1996, Edward French, review of The Queen's Man, p. 8.
Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 1995, review of When Christ and His Saints Slept, p. 176; October 1, 1996, review of The Queen's Man, p. 1430; December 15, 2001, review of Time and Chance, p. 1713; August 15, 2003, review of Dragon's Lair: A Medieval Mystery, p. 1049; February 15, 2005, review of Prince of Darkness, p. 202.
Library Journal, October 1, 1996, review of The Queen's Man, p. 130; November 1, 1998, Rex E. Klett, review of Cruel as the Grave, p. 129.
Publishers Weekly, July 12, 1991, review of The Reckoning, p. 52; February 20, 1995, review of When Christ and His Saints Slept, p. 195; August 26, 1996, review of The Queen's Man, p. 80; August 3, 1998, review of Cruel as the Grave, p. 78; January 21, 2002, review of Time and Chance, p. 63; September 15, 2003, review of Dragon's Lair, p. 48.
School Library Journal, December, 1992, Trevelyn Jones and Luann Toth, review of Reckoning, p. 25; March, 1999, Molly Connally, review of Cruel as the Grave, p. 231; February, 2004, Molly Connally, review of Dragon's Lair, p. 172; August, 2005, Francisca Goldsmith, review of Prince of Darkness, p. 152.
Voice of Youth Advocates, December, 1997, John Charles and Joanna Morrison, review of The Queen's Man, p. 296.
Washington Post Book World, July 25, 1993, review of Here Be Dragons, p. 12.
Sharon Kay Penman Web site, http://www.sharonkaypenman.com (February 13, 2006).