Today I have the pleasure of welcome my friend – and fellow 17th-century buff – Anna Belfrage to The Seventeenth Century Lady. Anna has written several wonderful historical novels, and I’m sure you’ll love her guest post.
Falling in Love with Mr Unknown – How One Painting Inspired a Whole Series
It’s all the fault of the gentleman on the portrait to the left. I have no idea who he is, but I do know who the painter is – Frans Hals, an eternal favourite of mine – and I must also admit to finding the black-clad man somewhat alluring. So alluring, in fact, that this portrait drew me in to read more and more about the 17th century. You see, until I saw this portrait, my perception of 17th century gallants were that either they were drowning in lace, ribbons and floppy hats, or they were dullards in homespun with no sartorial flair. The dude to the right proves that black and understated does not necessarily mean dull – far from it.
My fascination with the 17th century had started some time before. Not only is this the single period in time when Sweden – my home-country – could boast having its own empire, but it is also a breaking point in time, the structures that had held the medieval world together crumbling fast under the pressure of scientific advances and philosophical thought along the lines that all men were created equal – well, more or less. (Women, of course, remained inferior. Silly, gentle creatures that they were, they needed a man to look out for them… Psshhh!)
One of the main reasons behind all this upheaval was the Reformation of the preceding century. With the Reformation came increased literacy, driving people to think and express their thoughts much more than previously. With the Reformation also came religious fanaticism, and Europe fell apart in various religious groupings fighting each other on battlefields across the continent.
It is interesting – and somewhat disappointing – to note that while Martin Luther was endowed with a huge portion of humanism, thereby tempering his more radical religious thinking, his successor were often sadly lacking in the tolerance department. The various Protestant factions fell upon each other with almost as much fervour as they attacked the Catholics – and the Catholics gave as good as they got.
Ultimately, of course, all this fighting had very little to do with God: it was about power – it is always about power, no matter what the window-dressing might be. But for the men in the rank and file, for the people far removed from the corridors of power who risked everything for their faith, it was about God, about the right to decide for themselves how to worship and what to believe. The road to religious freedom was paved by all those 17th century men and women who died for their God, their church, their priests and ministers.
So, what did I have? A passion for religious conflict, an ongoing love affair with the 17th century and dashing Mr Unknown. Add to this my husband’s rather intriguing family history – his ancestor was forced to flee Scotland in the early 17th century due to religious persecution – and the central character in The Graham Saga, Matthew Graham, began to take shape. Tall, with hair that shifted in shades of brown and chestnut and eyes a magical greenish hazel, Matthew was a man who eschewed lace and ribbons, who dressed in sober colours and plain collars. A man raised within the Scottish Kirk, his faith and beliefs further tested during his years in the Commonwealth Army, my Matthew ran the risk of becoming something of an intolerant firebrand – which is why I decided to liven up his life a bit.
Where Matthew was a product of his education, of his Kirk, the woman he came upon concussed and burnt on the moor was just as much a product of her upbringing – the divide somewhat enlarged by the fact that Alex Lind was born in 1976. Some people ask me if Alex is a device. Alex herself snorts at this. She is the victim in all this mess, she sometimes says, but I’m not so sure about the victim part, because the moment Alex clapped eyes on Matthew she knew deep down – as did he – that she was meant for him and him for her.
“I did not,” Alex protests, sweeping a stray lock of hair into place behind her ear. “I just found him…weird.”
“And attractive,” I remind her, laughing to myself when her mouth curves into a little smile. Alex glances at her husband, at present lounging back against the wall, booted legs extended towards the little fire in the hearth.
“A little,” she says. It is my turn to snort. Matthew chuckles and raises his face in her direction. The flickering light from the fire tinges his skin into reds and oranges, and in the shadowy interior he seems ageless, even if I know for a fact that these days his hair is sprinkled with grey and there are lines in his face that weren’t there when they met, more than twenty years ago.
“I found you very pretty,” he says. “Odd, but right bonny, no matter your short hair and your singed foot.”
“You did?” She sounds pleased and tugs at her bodice in a way that has his eyes lingering on the swell of her bosom.
“You know I did.” He beckons her over and settles her on his lap. “My own little miracle,” he murmurs. “Well, maybe not so little,” he adds, pinching her bottom.
Anyway: there they were in 1658, two mismatched characters with a burning mutual attraction. Where he had a personal relationship to God, she was agnostic. Where she was raised to be an independent woman, he believed women required the protection of a man – and should obey their husbands. (Well, Alex had him change his mind about that pretty quickly…) Accustomed to voicing her opinion – and being respected for it – Alex suddenly had to cope with a society where she was nothing but an extension of her husband. And Matthew had his hands full with this stubborn, brave and utterly enticing woman who at times drove him crazy with her far-fetched notions.
Over the years they’ve had more than their fair share of adventures, ranging from Matthew’s abduction and subsequent servitude in Virginia, through the years of anguish and pain in a Scotland torn asunder by religious strife, to the endless toil of starting anew in the Colony of Maryland. Years in which they’ve had children, lost children, had to cope with nasty brutes, with accusations of witchery, with bigoted ministers, with bullying soldiers and abusive foremen. One could almost believe that this is why in the latest book, Whither Thou Goest, I’m sending them off to the Caribbean – for a nice, long holiday.
“Fat chance,” Alex mutters. She wags her finger at me. “I know you, Anna Belfrage. You’ve got things up your sleeve, and nasty things at that.”
Well, I can’t very well argue with that, can I? Instead, I give her a bland smile, and Alex looks about to burst.
“Don’t you dare risk him again,” she hisses, jerking her head in the direction of her husband. “What you put him through in the previous book…” She shakes her head, and I do feel a sting of shame – and of admiration, for this woman who loves so fiercely, who is so protective of her hunk of a man. Mind you, it works both ways, as moments later Matthew approaches me to tell me he will never forgive me if I let Alex come to harm. Well, I can’t have that, can I? Or maybe…yes, maybe.
Whatever the case, in the latest instalment of The Graham Saga, Matthew and Alex get to spend quality time in Jamaica and Barbados, where they are searching for Matthew’s nephew, Charlie Graham. In the aftermath of Monmouth’s Rebellion, Charlie – together with several hundreds of other unfortunate souls – has been transported in chains to Barbados, there to live out the rest of his life as a slave. Half-starved and mistreated, Charlie is living on borrowed time, and things don’t exactly improve when he attempts to escape.
Being a Monmouth Rebel was not particularly fun. Being handsome, dashing Monmouth himself was less than fun – at least for the last few months of his life. Monmouth was the eldest of Charles II’s illegitimate children, and upon his father’s death he had this hare-brained idea that the English people would prefer a bastard-born Protestant king to the legitimate Catholic heir, James II. Somewhere along the line, Monmouth seems to have disregarded the fact that if there was one thing the English did not want – ever again – it was Civil War. Besides, Monmouth was counting on the support of William of Orange, conveniently forgetting that the Dutch ruler was married to James II’s daughter.
The rebellion failed. Hundreds of young men were imprisoned, including the duke. The rebels were mostly condemned to die, their remains to be left to rot. The duke was subjected to a horribly bungled execution, with an inept executioner requiring multiple tries before he succeeded in severing the poor duke’s head. And as to Charlie and his co-prisoners, they were sent off as beasts of burden to the Caribbean, where most of them succumbed to maltreatment and illness.
So there you have it: a portrait I fell in love with lead me on a strange and rather convoluted journey through the latter half of the 17th century. The sitter in question looks as if he would find it all rather amusing – and somehow I think Mr Unknown was as capable with a sword, as smart and quick on his feet as my own Matthew.
“Not quite,” Matthew objects drily. “Yon man is too stout.” He stretches himself to his full six feet and three and pats himself in his flat stomach. “Too much Dutch cheese and beer,” he says, nodding at the portrait.
Huh. I wink at my man in black. To my utter surprise he winks back. I take it in stride – heck, I talk to my characters as if they were real, so what’s so strange about sharing a moment or two with a man depicted in oils?
Anna Belfrage combines an exciting day-job as the CEO of a multinational listed group with her writing endeavours. When she isn’t writing a novel, she is probably working on a post or catching up on her reading. Other than work and writing, Anna busies herself with her large family, drinks copious amounts of tea and wishes someone would hurry up and invent a “shed ten kilos overnight” pill so that she can continue indulging in chocolate. Sadly, so far no pill, so now and then she trots off to the gym instead.