Joanna Stafford

(creator: Nancy Bilyeau)

Nancy Bilyeau
Joanna Stafford, who narrates throughout, was, when we first meet her, a 26-year-old novice at the Dominican Priory at Dartford in Kent during the reign of King Henry VIII. She tells us that her hair is "black as polished onyx; my eyes are brown with flecks of green. My olive skin neither reddens by St Swithin's Day, nor pales by Advent. Mine is the coloring of my Spanish mother. But not her delicate features. No, my face is that of my English father: a wide forehead, high cheekbones, and strong chin." She is a member of the ill-fated Stafford family. Her uncle had been executed and her father banished from court.''

She had become a lady in waiting to the king's ex-wife Katherine of Aragon and had cared for her in the last few weeks of her life. She subsequently decided to obey Katherine's wishes and become a novice at Dartford Priory, "sincere in my longing for a higher life, far from the clamor of human voices and the touch of man," and at first she had been very happy there. But when she heard that her cousin, Lady Margaret Bullmer, was to be burned at the stake at Smithfield, she had to decide whether or not to break the rules of enclosure to stand alongside her. Luckily, however, when attending Matins at midnight, "Enlightenment came. All of my doubts and fears fell away, as if I stood in a waterfall, cleansed by the purest streams. I would go to Smithfield. All would be well. I raised my arms and turned up my palms, toward the altar, my cheeks damp with gratitude."

Despite all her disobedience and headstrong behaviour, she is subsequently told that she is "an extraordinarily talented novice. Learning, mastery of Latin, embroidery, music, mathematics, French, and Spanish – your accomplishments in each area are outstanding." Altogether, she is "a remarkable person" and, as her admirer tells her, "the cleverest and bravest woman alive".

Nancy Bilyeau is a New York writer and magazine editor who became the executive editor of DuJour magazine. She has also written three (unsold) screenplays. Born in Chicago, she grew up in Michigan and earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan. The Crown was her first novel, written following her membership of a fiction workshop. She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.

The Crown (2012)
The Crown starts in May 1537. Joanna Stafford, a young Dominican novice, learns that her favorite cousin has been condemned by Henry VIII to be burned at the stake. Defying the sacred rule of enclosure, Joanna leaves the priory to stand at her cousin's side. Arrested for interfering with the kings justice, Joanna, along with her father, is sent to the Tower of London.

The ruthless Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, forces Joanna to agree to spy for him: to save her father's life she must find a powerful ancient relic, the Athelstan crown. Accompanied by two monks, Joanna returns home to Dartford Priory (which is about to face dissolution) and searches for it in secret. But when more than one dead body is uncovered, Joanna departs with the young monk, Brother Edmund, to search for the legendary crown on a grand tourist trail that takes them from royal castles via Stonehenge to Malmesbury Abbey, the final resting place of King Athelstan. Also involved is the admiring and handsome young constable, Geoffrey Scovill, who keeps rescuing her and seems fated to reappear in later books.

It gets off to an interesting start with graphic descriptions of the crowds awaiting the burning at Smithfield, and life as a prisoner in the Tower of London, where Joanna's father ends up on the rack. However, it is always slightly awkward to mix fictional and historical characters and Joanna's narration doesn't always convince, including, as it does such episodes as when a young Joanna, during the single day she spends at the Royal Court, just happens to eavesdrop a very private conversation between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn immediately before Henry hurries off to tell his wife Katherine that he has decided to get their marriage annulled!

Another slightly tiresome flashback occurs towards the end of the book when Joanna gets knocked out, but before we told what happened to her, we have to wade through a description of an incident years before. Unfortunately, this reduces rather than increases the feeling of tension.

Joanna is certainly a very self-assured individual as when, disguised as a servant, she sets off to find her way from her own cell, through underground tunnels, to her father's cell, on the way telling the scurrying rats, "You will not interfere with me. I am Joanna Stafford, and I will not be stopped!" After various fights and chases, from which, of course, she emerges unhurt, we are told that she "almost swooned." You can't blame her.

It gets more convincing when she returns to Dartford Priory, together with two friars, only to find that something is seriously wrong. She hopes to be able to resume her life as a novice, for while in the church, "I could feel the presence of decade upon decade of eager young novices, learning prayers and songs. Merging my soul with theirs in our holy observances, I came the closest a person could to embracing eternity." The author explains that what she was trying to do was to recapture the feelings of people at the time. Even so, Joanna does not emerge as a very likely novice.

The author has done her research and there are realistic descriptions of abbey life, including the (rare) feast at which only the drunken Lord Chester and his wife were expected to eat - the nuns just had to watch them and do without. "It was no hardship. We were accustomed to going for many hours, even a day, without food. We welcomed it."

Joanna is soon in hot pursuit of the Athelstan crown, the holy relic that Charlemagne had collected, that Joanna had been told had been hidden somewhere in the abbey. "It was the crown of Christ himself, worn at his crucifixion." No wonder that one of the friars called out, "Ce n'est pas possible". But Joanna is nothing if not persistent, for she had been told that "It has a power that has never been unleashed, for if it were, it would change the lives of every man, woman, and child living in England – and beyond." It would restore the power of the Catholic Church and put a stop to the Reformation!

In the end, the mystery is solved, but Joanna is not really much of a detective, as it is only when she discovered a dead body and a mad nun melodramatically threatened her with a long knife, that she realised that the nun was a "murderess. And she was, most likely, going to attempt to murder me within the next few minutes." But you may be sure she had little chance of succeeding.

The Chalice (2013)
The Chalice is nearly all set in England in 1538. 27-year-old Joanna Stafford, the ex novice whose monastery had been dismantled and who is the narrator throughout, finds herself drawn into a most improbable plot involving her cousin King Henry VIII. With great reluctance she accepts her role in a prophecy foretold by three different seers, each providing a new (almost incomprehensible) clue to the puzzle. In the end she finds herself swept up into an international intrigue against her king and country and finds that "the life of Henry VIII as well as the future of Christendom are in her hands"!

It is a very long book with an over-extended plot that fails to hold the interest throughout, although it has its moments as when Joanna stands up to her opponents, gets arrested and almost sent to the Tower, and later on when she even learns to sword fight!

But the court intrigues are not very intriguing and the inclusion of real life figures like Lady Mary Tudor (who "looked ill - no worse than ill. Her luminous white complexion had turned chalky and loose. Her eyes were rimmed with red") does not make it more convincing, although it may help to explain why the book was chosen as the Best Historical Mystery of 2013 in the Romantic Times Book Review Awards. There is potential romantic interest too in the shape of Geoffrey Scovill who keeps bobbing up in unlikely places, and apothecary and healer Brother Edmund, an ex-monk to whom she becomes betrothed. When "the corners of his mouth turned down, I knew what this meant - his supple Dominican mind turned the problem over." Later on, "she felt something new - wild and angry - in how he kissed me. I lost my breath; I thought I would faint from it." Then, in the best Romantic tradition, she is about to marry him when the church door bursts open and the Earl of Suffolk, his face shining with sweat from the hard ride down from London, proclaims, "Joanna. You can't proceed ... this marriage is illegal." You may get the feeling you've heard it all before.

Cromwell appears too: "How ugly Cromwell was ... A double chin rested on his collar - this was a man who gorged on food and drink ... I did not deliberate the thought; it came surging up from my soul like a pure stream bubbling from the earth. I curse you, Thomas Cromwell. You are a murderer and a heretic and a destroyer. But I pray to God that somehow, someday, I shall be the one who brings you down. It shocked me, the force of my hate, but it fuelled me as well. Would that I could decipher the last part of the prophecy, to know if I would be the one to bring an end to Chief Minister Thomas Cromwell." But "it was as if he'd heard my vicious thoughts. Our eyes met for three seconds at the most. But in that fleeting span, those grey eyes assessed me with such incredible acuity that the air rushed out of my body and Tower Hill tilted beneath my feet." It all sounds a bit corny.

Even King Henry VIII appears and is about to drink from a poisoned chalice when Joanna races up to him yelling, "Your Majesty, stop!" He hesitates and Joanna goes on, "May I take the chalice now?" - and amazingly he lets her.

The historical background has been thoroughly researched, but the characters are not really brought to life. Amongst the unlikely characters is the second seer, the wicked Orobas: "He was a truly terrifying sight. There was not a hair on his skull. He had a high narrow forehead; his nose jutted out in a proud beak. Even in the candlelight, those eyes brimmed with contempt." And then he plunges his knife deep into the breast of a living swallow. He collapses in a heap and Joanna is told,"This is the most dangerous part; it's when some go to join the dead instead of pulling them to our side."

Joanna herself sees visions and speaks in a strange stilted manner: "Sir, I fear there is some confusion over the purpose of this dinner. You are mistaken if you believe anything untoward occurred." She explains that, as a Dominican novice, she had "believed in peace and sacrifice and forgiveness. Now I rarely prayed, except for the courage not to falter when the time came for me to strike." But then she never was a very likely novice.

The book ends with Discussion Questions, one of which is, "Discuss the idea of free will versus fate, and fate versus destiny." Any difference between fate and destiny is not explained. The author goes on to tell us that future "adventures will become more surprising." It would be better if they were more convincing. So I don't think I'll be reading them.

The author has her own website, and there are interviews with her on the Sophie Perinot blog and numerous other blogs too. She also appears on Facebook and Twitter.

Please sign my GUEST BOOK. All comments, contributions (or corrections) welcomed!


The Crown cover
The cover is puzzling but attractively colored.
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